Watch how Ardenwald teacher Darryl Coppedge encourages student-ninjas to defeat math monsters -

There is a place where students defeat math monsters, using their minds.

by: PHOTO BY: ALVARO FONTAN - Darryl Coppedge requires his third graders to solve a math-monster problem on the board before explaining the MathKwonDo process step by step to the rest of the Ardenwald Elementary School class.A place where they are urged to be courageous, respect their instructor, their classmates and themselves; a place where they work with others, helping their classmates to learn math, and where they are not afraid to ask for help themselves.

Above all, they are encouraged to never give up.

This place really exists: it is Darryl Coppedge’s third-grade classroom at Ardenwald Elementary School, where his one goal is simple — to replace the fear of math with confidence.

See a video of the classroom in action here:

Coppedge has developed a method of teaching math he calls MathKwonDo, and for the last three years he has been using this method, math scores at the school have gone from some of the lowest in the state to some of the highest, said Kelli Rhea, an instructional coach for the North Clackamas School District.

This is especially significant, she added, because Ardenwald Elementary School is a Title One school, with a high poverty level.(Image is Clickable Link) by: PHOTO BY: ALVARO FONTAN - Darryl Coppedge, a third grade teacher at Ardenwald Elementary School, is the originator of the MathKwonDo program that the North Clackamas School District is now exporting regionally.

Rhea works with 30 teachers in six different buildings. She supports teachers with instruction, does observations, and gives feedback.

She said that Coppedge has not reinvented the curriculum. All the teachers in the NCSD are using the new national standards for teaching math. But instead, he has created an incentive program “where students have recognized what they know and what they need to know. He is not just teaching math, he is teaching how to learn, and students who may not have seen themselves as learners, see themselves that way now.”

Martial-arts model

Coppedge developed his learning strategy after watching his 11-year-old son’s Taekwondo class.

A wide range of students, from age 5 to 70, were engaged in learning the martial art at a different level, striving for a different belt, “but students knew exactly what they were working on. They knew how to practice in class; they knew when they had mastered a skill; and they knew when to approach the instructor about learning more,” Coppedge said.

“I realized if that can work in a martial arts class, it could work in an academic class,” he said.

Coppedge started thinking about how he could apply this strategy, where students work toward a goal and take pride when they earn it. He wanted the whole third-grade year to be mapped out and as open as a book.

Three years ago, after many, many hours of work, Coppedge aligned all the Oregon state standards in third-grade math to a belt color or stripe. Then last year he adapted his learning strategy to accommodate the new common-core standards in the national-math curriculum.

He told his students that when they had mastered all the third-grade standards and earned their black belts, then they were ready for fourth grade, and they would have the skills and confidence for the rest of school, all the way into college.

“I created an authentic learning culture — it is a dojo,” where students will be courageous and respectful, Coppedge said.

And even more than that, “They have learned how to learn and how to set goals for themselves. That is a big piece to carry on,” Rhea said.

Collaborationby: PHOTO BY: ALVARO FONTAN - Third grader Logan Law defeats cartoon monsters as part of a MathKwondo class at Ardenwald Elementary School. Every Monday, his teacher awards stripes by making a colored marks that stand in for belts.

The teachers in the North Clackamas School District are all working really hard, dealing with large class sizes and lack of materials, Rhea said. So once Coppedge felt confident with his system, he began teaching workshops, showing 20 other math teachers how MathKwonDo works.

“The response has been phenomenal, and it has been great meeting caring people and having the opportunity to collaborate. It gives us another tool in the toolbox,” he said.

Rhea said that the other teachers recognized Coppedge’s enthusiasm about the program and shared in that excitement.

“There is such value in teacher-created methodology, especially when teachers have little time to collaborate or create something on their own,” she said.

Coppedge’s program promotes the district’s K-12 instruction-across-the-curriculum program, Rhea said, noting that he builds relationships with students, honors student identity, and removes barriers for access to content for even the most marginal of students.

Engagement is crucial

As for why the students have been so successful at MathKwonDo, both Coppedge and Rhea noted that student engagement is high for a program like this, because it taps into their interests and makes math fun.

Coppedge really does create a dojo-like atmosphere in the classroom, even wearing a black belt when math class rolls around. Students come into the room and immediately sit cross-legged on the floor. He bangs a gong, and students stand up and bow to him and to one another.

He asks if they are ready for MathKwonDo and if they are ready to defeat math monsters, and they shout “yes.”

Students then compete with one another to see who gets to go to the whiteboard to demonstrate how to solve the math problems Coppedge has drawn on the board. After this part of the lesson is over, students break up into groups to complete an assignment, and here is where another crucial part of the teaching system comes into play.

“Darryl tells them that they are not successful unless they are helping others,” Rhea said, adding that “students who have mastered a skill can help others, and this fosters a sense of leadership, because they know they can help other people.”

With “peer-tutor ninjas, I am fostering a culture of volunteering and teamwork that will carry over into other subjects. The idea in martial arts is that you don’t progress unless you help others,” Coppedge said.

When students are helping other students, this frees him up to work with anyone who is experiencing problems with the lessons, he said.

Coppedge also has arranged bulletin boards and charts around the classroom, so that students know exactly which skills are being taught that day when they walk in the room. They can see what they need to master in order to earn another stripe on their belts, and they can follow their progress on a color-coded chart at the back of the room.

Every Monday, Coppedge awards stripes by making a colored mark on students’ wristlets, which stand in for belts.

“They get public recognition for their belt, the class applauds, the awardee bows, and they get immediate feedback. This is a team effort; we are building trust in a safe environment,” he said.

Rewarding program

Coppedge feels that all teachers care about kids and will do whatever it takes for them to experience success. He says the district supports creative and innovative staff and teachers who are willing to think outside the box.

He feels his MathKwonDo program engages kids because it has a hero-defeating-monsters theme, and because it capitalizes on the martial arts craze.

“It’s a challenge, because we have to compete against kids who are engaged with movies and DVDs, even in the car, so we have to make learning interesting and exciting,” Coppedge said.

What has been the most rewarding for him, has been seeing his students thrive in math.

Several weeks ago he was set to go into an Individualized Education Program meeting for one of his students and her parents.

The student was not yet up to grade level in math and her parents and teachers were concerned, thinking she might need to go into special education.

But, before the meeting happened, the student came up to the whiteboard and started solving problems.

“She took it to a whole new level and solved four challenging math problems on her own. The class applauded and she felt successful. I told the parents, and she was flooded with compliments. I have seen a change in her, and it took teamwork — her parents, fellow students and teachers,” Coppedge said.

“Now she sees herself as someone good at math and successful in school,” Rhea said.

It takes watching just one math lesson to see that Coppedge’s students are engaged, having fun and learning.

There are three 9-year-old boys at Jack’s table; he is the designated peer-tutor ninja, helping the two others understand inverse relationships.

“You help someone when they don’t get something. When I help someone solve a problem, it feels good that I taught them well,” he said.

Parker, who is 8, is happy to explain the whole belt chart hanging on the wall, noting that “each stripe is a strategy, with its own color. If you master all the required ones, you get a stripe that matches the color.”

Phillip, 9, is working on an assignment about numbers and operations in base 10. He likes the belt system and working as a team.

“It is fun, and the teacher makes it so easy for us,” he said.

Coppedge is reframing students’ identities, Rheas said, adding, “He has high expectations for all his students and has decreased their achievement gaps through instruction, so that they all see their progress in the belts and now see themselves being good at math.”

Coppedge added, “MathKwonDo brings the joy back into teaching math. I look forward to it; it’s fun.”

By Ellen Spitaleri
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