Eye on ECCS: Pioneer Ridge Middle School (Math)

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NOTE: Each week throughout the school year, we will visit a school across Eastern Carver County Schools. Some weeks the plan may be to stop in multiple classrooms by grade, or by subject. Other weeks it may highlight a certain specialist group. The purpose is to give families and our community a glimpse into the every-day learning environment happening in our buildings. A chance to spotlight the incredible work our teachers and staff do on a daily basis for our students, and to showcase the incredible work our students produce as well. So, keep your Eye on ECCS!


When Chaska Middle School West math colleagues Lani Grafelman and Eric Swanhorst shared a new approach to teaching with the Pioneer Ridge Middle School math group last spring, it didn’t take long for changes to happen.

“The entire team jumped on it immediately. They were using the new teaching method the next day,” Pioneer Ridge Middle School principal Amy Nelson said.

The new approach is the use of VNPS, or vertical non-permanent surfaces. But it’s more than white boards, it’s  getting students out from their desks and collaborating with one another. 

“In the past, there would be one question on the board. Everyone would be doing the same problem. Some would get done in a minute, others would struggle to figure it out. Now, working at the boards, students can go as fast as their group can go. Some days there are boards that will get four, five, or six problems done in the same amount of time we would have done one problem last year,” said Zac Huber, a math teacher at PRMS since 2011.

It is that peer interaction that teachers saw from those first lessons at the end of last school year that had the entire math team ready to jump all-in this school year.

“To me, the best part is the interaction of the students with each other and the opportunity for peer coaching. They are learning from each other, not just sitting and listening to a seminar or watching a video,” paraprofessional Steve Torp said.

“It’s been awesome to see math talk happening the entire math hour! Students are becoming better communicators (yes, speaking and listening to each other). I’ve witnessed a few students that were more reserved last year blossom into happy, smiling peer coaches explaining their unique strategies to solve problems in and environment that flourishes on learning from our errors. It is so cool to see the knowledge mobility,” Sheila Hessburg, a teacher at PRMS since 2021, said.

The list of positives in the learning shift is long for Ailee Reinhardt, a teacher in the district since 2009.

“Engagement and math talk, cooperation, sharing thinking, communication, ownership, engagement, getting to know all students in the class, working alongside students to encourage, problem solve, and promote thinking strategies, revisiting learning, holding one another accountable,” Reinhardt said.

When kids are learning from one another, the teacher has the ability to connect with each and every student.

“For me, it moves me into a facilitator role. This allows me to work and connect with each student in the room at various times. The ownership for learning is on the student and the required critical thinking lends itself to greater retention of the learning targets!” said Tara Jones, now in her second year at PRMS. “The ‘math talk’ and discussions are valuable and insightful. Students are able to share their wealth of knowledge and strategies. We can easily highlight students who normally would not get recognition for their skills!”

“As a beginning teacher, I have loved the chance to teach a curriculum that breaks out of the ‘sit and get’ method that never worked for me growing up and not only mobilizes the knowledge in the room but also teaches our students real life collaboration skills. It melts my heart every time I see students branch out from their comfort zone to teach each other! I love to watch their confidence grow. This has been a huge learning opportunity not just for the students, but me as well!” said Megan Simmons, in her first year at PRMS.

Students in the classroom agreed with their teachers. Some said they enjoy working with friends and classmates to find the answers. Another student said they found it helpful to have a group to brainstorm with.

“This is a perfect environment to build trust amongst peers as they help each other learn. I have seen confidence grow from both ends as well. Students that understand concepts now can stand up in front of their group or even the whole class and lead them,” Huber said. “Students who find math difficult now have the ability to enter into a situation where they may not know what to do, but they have their peers to help guide them until they can stand on their own.”

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