Maths at Life Academy

Life Academy is a public school in Oakland that has had incredible success in supporting all students to achieve at high levels. I take my undergraduate class on a field trip to observe the students learning maths at Life Academy each year and they are always inspired by what they see.

Life Academy is a public school in Oakland that is committed to disrupting patterns of inequity on a daily basis. Life Academy is ethnically diverse, currently the demographics are:

  • 74% Latino/a/Hispanic
  • 11% African-American
  • 1% Asian
  • 2% Filipino
  • 1% Native American
  • 1% White

Ninety-two per cent of students are eligible for free school lunch.

The school is located in a part of Oakland in which gang activities and murders are distressingly commonplace. The teachers at Life Academy work hard to make the school a safe space, to communicate to all students that they can achieve at the highest levels, and to inspire them to identify as college-bound students. The mathematics teachers teach heterogeneous maths classes using complex instruction, making sure that all students can take the high-level maths classes that they need for college eligibility. The accomplishments of Life Academy are many:

The school has the highest college acceptance rate of any high school in Oakland, and the proportion of students who leave meeting California’s A-G college entrance requirements is an impressive 87%.

We are sharing a classroom video and interview with Life Academy teachers in hopes that you find them as informative and inspiring as we do.

Groupwork with Ms. Torres

Ana Torres is a middle school maths teacher and graduate of the Stanford Teacher Education program. At the time this video was filmed she was in her second year of teaching at Life Academy.

We join Ana Torres’ sixth grade class in late spring. The unit they are on is focused on making sense of volume and surface area of different sized prisms using multiple strategies.

The students are sitting in groups of four working on this Dark Green Rod challenge:

Takeout a dark green rod. Your team’s job is to design and make (using cm paper) a rod that looks exactly like the dark green but it is three times bigger. Here is the student handout used in the class:

Dark Green Rod Task

The extract of class we are sharing here is the second day of the Dark Green Rod challenge. On day one groups created three-dimensional models using centimeter square paper of the enlarged green rod. Now they are sharing how they found the surface area and volume of the enlarged green rod with Ms. Torres before starting their individual write-up.

There are four out of six groups in the class showcased in the video. We see them making mistakes, building with Cuisenaire rods, discussing different ways of seeing, confusing volume and surface area, being visual in their explanation of methods, and comparing methods.

Ms. Torres has set up groups to share with her by giving each student turns to explain their strategy for finding the volume. This is a common structure she uses to promote equitable groupwork. To read more about the principles behind the teacher’s practices see the Group Work section of the our website.

The following interview is very illuminating in understanding why the school has such success. The interview is with two of the mathematics teachers who are at Life Academy.

Jane and Carlos Interview

Jane Lee is a graduate from the Stanford Teacher Education program in her third year of teaching high school at Life Academy when this interview took place.

Carlos Cabana has been teaching since 1990. He has taught both high school and middle school. At Life Academy he returned to his passion of teaching middle school students. He has spent his career striving to help all students to be successful in mathematics. In the interview we hear about the important messages the teachers communicate to their students about mathematics and learning mathematics.