NEWFANE — Nicole Plympton, third-grade teacher at NewBrook Elementary School in Newfane, has always loved math.
"I loved being able to see the how and why of math, and not just memorizing formulas," she said. "I liked when I was able to apply what I had learned."
Plympton has been named Rookie Math Teacher of the Year by the Vermont Council of Teachers of Mathematics. She will be recognized at VCTM's fall conference on Oct. 14 and receive a cash prize, a plaque, and a year's membership to VCTM.
Now in her third year of teaching at NewBrook, Plympton said she is "glad they put 'Rookie' in the title," because she believes her many experienced colleagues at NewBrook deserve an award as well.
In his letter of nomination, Scotty Tabachnick, NewBrook principal, said, "Ms. Plympton has consistently proven her commitment to the Common Core and to ensuring that her students are exposed to the third grade standards. She has high expectations for her students, and they work diligently for her. I regularly witness her interactions with our students, and she shows them a level of care and concern that I would hope for my own children."
On the day this reporter visited Plympton's class, the students were playing a math game called "Around the World." Her rules for the game give insight into her approach. The students sat in a circle on the floor. One student stood outside the circle behind a seated classmate. Plympton rolled two large foam dice into the center of the circle. If the standing student was first to add the numbers correctly, he moved to stand behind the next seated student and take another turn. If the seated student correctly added the numbers first, she took the place of the standing student, who then sat in the open space in the circle.
Before Plympton rolled the dice the first time, she addressed the standing student, saying, "Is it okay if you get it?" He nodded. Then she said, "Is it okay if you don't get it?" He nodded again. At intervals, as the excitement increased, she repeated these questions to the standing student and to the seated student, in effect preserving the dignity of all the participants, whoever responded correctly and first.
Plympton, who grew up in Wrentham, Massachusetts, graduated from Keene State College in 2012, as an elementary education and geography major. The KSC program gave her lots of field experience in classrooms, she said.
"Freshman year, I used to go in early to work with fifth graders in middle-school-level math," she said. "In sophomore and junior years, I was placed in Troy (New Hampshire) and Winchendon (Massachusetts) in a fourth grade and a third grade. My senior year, I was at Fuller Elementary in Keene in a first grade."
In 2014, Plympton earned a M. Ed. in Special Education. Her field placement then was at Academy School in Brattleboro, where she worked with all different grade levels.
Plympton never planned to become a special education teacher, however.
"With the special education training, I knew I could create an inclusive classroom," she said. "All students have the ability to learn. They need to be in the environment where they can learn best. I wanted to create a classroom where students felt safe, engaged, and comfortable learning, where they could do group work or independent work. We would be able to see progress."
"Having knowledge of special education," she continued, "I knew I could differentiate my teaching, so I could help students grow academically and socially."
She illustrated how she differentiates students' work by pointing out the specific work stations in the classroom and showing examples from the children's language arts, reading, and math folders of the individualized activities.
"I differentiate as much as I can," she said. "They all have different math folders. For my math lessons, I have a plethora of activities for the same (academic) standards."
Betty Young, Windham Central Supervisory Union Math Coach, in her letter supporting Plympton's nomination, said, "Nicole's classroom is bright, well organized, and inviting. Her lessons are creative, productively challenging, and deliberately differentiated in both ability directions."
Plympton says she learned from all her mentors; however, she singled out Jean Cornell, first grade teacher at Fuller Elementary, as her model for classroom management, saying, "She's the best I've ever seen. I was with her every single day for a whole semester."
The positive reinforcement techniques Plympton learned there she has adapted for third graders. In this approach, students earn 'coins' for positive behaviors, such as answering a thoughtful question or performing an act of kindness or doing the right thing, she explained. Students can save up (they have 'banks' on their desks) for simple rewards, such as choosing a song or sitting in Plympton's chair for the day.
Plympton finds third graders a joy to teach.
"At this age, they love coming to school," she said. "They're not just learning to read, they're comprehending. They're learning to multiply and divide. They have a sense of humor, and we can have genuinely meaningful conversations. I hope they learn that knowledge is something they will use throughout their life. And how much I care about them."
Contact Nancy A. Olson at firstname.lastname@example.org.