ESUSD Elementary Teachers Selected as Fellows in Cotsen Foundation’s “Art of Teaching” Program for Math

Tapping into in the Cotsen Foundation’s “Art of Teaching” mentoring program, some of El Segundo Unified School District’s talented elementary teachers are pushing themselves and their colleagues to the next level of expertise to better help their students fully grasp the deep mathematical thinking required by the Common Core State Standards.

“ESUSD implemented the Cotsen Foundation’s mentoring program in the 2015-16 school year to provide its elementary teachers powerful professional growth and development as they implement Cognitive Guided Instruction (CGI) in their math classrooms,” said Dr. Melissa Moore, ESUSD superintendent.

Last summer, ESUSD and the El Segundo Education Foundation selected Christine Quinn at Richmond Street School, and Sue Kim at Center Street School as the mentors for the launch of the two-year program at their respective schools. Another ten teachers from kindergarten through fifth grade at Richmond and Center Street Schools volunteered and were selected as Cotsen Fellows.

The teachers selected to participate in the prestigious fellowship program are Mychala Barnes, Jessica Bupp, Kelly Nicol, Valerie Sandowicz, Rachel Santora, and Christine Van Duzer from Center Street School; and Carolyn Elder, Alisa Lister, Marie Loye, Celia Plotkin, and Sherry Schmidt from Richmond Street School.

Quinn explains that Cotsen Mentors are in dedicated full-time positions to act as “change agents” within their schools. After being selected for The Cotsen Foundation’s intensive training last summer, the second-grade teacher took on the role of full-time mentor to five of her teaching colleagues who are Fellows.

Quinn helps her teaching colleagues reflect on their lessons and plan strategies to push their students forward with the Cognitive Guided Instruction that the District has implemented to address California’s Common Core Standards. “We work on our craft, review student data, we do inquiries and discuss articles.” She and the Cotsen Fellows also attend conferences and participate monthly in an inquiry group to further study “best practices” in teaching. “It’s really rich learning.”

Cognitive Guided Instruction, Quinn explains, is “a research-tested pedagogical lens where the student is the focus.”  She says, “In our math classes, teachers pose a problem and students are allowed to solve it any way they see fit. Based on their reaction, teachers push and prompt the students forward, asking probing questions, allowing the students to help guide the instruction.” The intention is that this open exploration builds the students’ mathematical thinking and encourages flexibility with the way they solve the problems and arrive at the algorithms.

Valerie Sandowicz, Cotsen Fellow and fifth-grade teacher, works with her colleague, Cotsen Mentor Sue Kim, at Center Street Elementary. Encouraged by Kim’s coaching and supports, Sandowicz says, “Students are beginning to soar. They realize, ‘I’m not just doing the procedure. I now know why the algorithm works.’”

The mathematical problems Sandowicz poses to her students are customized to relate to their real life situations. “We insert their real names into the problems they are solving, and personalize the situations, says Sandowicz. “Whether that’s using fractions or division to work out what share of a pizza or the number of cookies each kid at a birthday party gets, the students have real buy-in because the problems we are posing relate to their real lives.”

Having taught 15 years, she is grateful for the insight and extra set of eyes her Cotsen Mentor provides. “I have the support of someone who is my colleague and has a similar teaching background. With two of us in the classroom, we can have deeper conversations with more students to learn about their mathematical thinking.”

With Kim observing and coaching, Sandowicz says she can better anticipate what her students are thinking in the moment, and then ask a set of questions to get them to the final stage of the algorithm.  “As teachers, we use our expertise to change course according to the students’ needs.”

Results of the intensive teacher mentoring are already apparent. “ Instead of saying to themselves, ‘I hate math,’ kids are seeing themselves as mathematicians,” says Sandowicz.  “Their eyes are on fire; they’re excited. They are very engaged and can’t wait to share their learning. They understand that if they have a different understanding of how to solve the problem, then they can solve it the way they’re the most comfortable.”

“Through their experience, students can develop their own understanding of concepts being presented,” said Quinn. “What we’re finding is that students’ depth of understanding is so much richer than before.”

As students expand their mathematical thinking, Sandowicz points out, “The journey is more important than the answer.’

For more information on the Cotsen Foundation’s “Art of Teaching,” please visit