Getting to Know Us: Interview With Victoria Bill

Posted on April 7th, 2014 by Pam Goldman

Victoria Bill is the Chair of the Institute for Learning's mathematics Disciplinary Literacy Team. She talks about her work at IFL, mathematics, painting, and her love of puggles.

Victoria Bill

Tell us about some of the work the mathematics team has been doing this year.

It's been an exciting year. We've been going to scale in the state of Tennessee with our materials and tools for planning and reflecting on practice. We’ve worked with coaches, and they, in turn, have helped 13,000 other teachers understand tools and math ideas. Data show a significant growth in student learning in mathematics across the state.

In Paterson, New Jersey, we've worked with teachers at all grade levels. They have been studying our tasks and lesson guides in professional learning communities and using Accountable Talk® in their classrooms. Teachers are seeing changes. Student work hanging in schools shows different representations and writing about math reasoning. There is a greater variety with respect to the types of high-level tasks students are solving. During lessons, teachers are hearing changes. More students question each other and challenge and add on to each other's ideas. Most importantly, they hear students make connections between mathematical concepts.

In several districts, we work with coaches and teachers. In Paterson; Chapel Hill, North Carolina; and Akron, Ohio, it's exciting to see coaches and teachers working together.

In talking about work with Tennessee, you mentioned tools. What do you mean by a tool?

A tool is a set of indicators related to an idea. The indicators are generalized ideas carefully gleaned from and related back to research. In this way, the tools carry theory. These generalized ideas translated as indicators in the tools purposefully connected to practice serve a variety of useful purposes for teachers. They can serve as a guide for both planning and reflecting on one's own practice—self-monitoring. They can facilitate teachers talking to each other by providing a shared language and understanding of practice. Examples of what I mean by a tool are the Thinking Through a Lesson Plan protocol and features and indicators of Accountable Talk. Both can be traced back to research on teaching and learning.

You've been a fellow since the founding days of the Institute for Learning. What changes have you seen over time?

We've always worked from the fundamental notion that in successful classrooms, schools, and districts, everyone is a learner. We started out by providing opportunities to learn for everyone in a system. Doing this work provided me with windows into the work of superintendents, principals, mathematics directors, and teachers. What I learned during those years informs today's work. Today, the focus of my work is deeper, richer, more specific, and focused on mathematics—rigorous math instruction and student thinking, reasoning, talking, and writing in math. I spend more time working with coaches and assisting them with supporting teachers.

The mathematics team has developed a fuller, more robust set of tools and resources now. These include sets of related lesson guides with associated performance-based assessments and identified essential understandings of key mathematical ideas that teachers need to know to teach and to listen for from students. We have also developed extensive sets of instructional professional development modules with notes pages that give coaches the resources they need to take responsibility for this work. Coaches can use the modules to study together with other coaches and to lead work with teachers in schools.

What do you think about the Common Core State Standards in Mathematics?

I think they're the best thing since sliced bread, and my colleagues on the Institute for Learning's math team would agree with me. They are the most wonderful thing that has happened during my instructional career. Teachers of mathematics now have workable standards. These standards are workable because they narrow the focus, they identify mathematics students need to know, they include skill-level work as well as interpretation and deeper understanding, and they provide a nice balance between skills and conceptual understanding. Yes, understanding is front and center, but mastery of skills is still important.

Perhaps what's most helpful for teachers is the narrow focus. Teachers know what they are responsible for and what teachers in the next grade level are responsible for. They can see how the standards from one grade level build to the next.

Why mathematics?

To me, it's intriguing to think about generalized ideas: How do rules come about and how do those rules become generalized ideas that are applicable to many problems. I love to play with numbers and watch magnitude change with operations. I love to communicate with a graph or tell a story with a table. Math is a playground in which to discover how things work, play, and create.

I know you are an avid painter. How long have you been painting? Why did you start? What's satisfying about it?

I love my painting. I love Impressionism most, blurring of fine lines and blending colors and haze. Yet, I've tried many different styles. I am now working on an O'Keefe-type flower for my daughter’s new apartment. Something as straightforward as painting a flower, you think would be simple, but shadowing, colors, different perspectives, it's not. The process is fascinating. My paintings have many layers due to try, try, and try again.

I took this up about 12 years ago to give me something to do other than work. I find it relaxing. Sometimes, I start with a picture I invent and add my own little twist. Other times, I copy from a master, maybe ballerinas from Degas or flowers from O’Keefe, and then I don’t mess with the originals. I study the work for hours. Where does depth need to be added? How can I make the light hit this? Where should I shade? The process needs a lot of patience.

Vic's Painting 1
Vic's Painting 2

What are you reading about education these days?

I’ve been thinking a lot about differentiation and intervention and comparing the two. Along those lines, I've been reading "Learning Trajectories in Mathematics Education" by Clements and Sarama; "Learning Trajectory Based Instruction Education: Toward a Theory of Teaching" by Sztajn et al.; and Learning Trajectories in Mathematics, a Foundation for Standards, Curriculum, Assessment, and Instruction by Daro, Mosher, and Corcoran.

What else are you reading?

Dream with Little Angels by Michael Hiebert. It's a mystery told from the point of view of an eleven-year-old boy. As the book progresses, we watch the boy’s emerging understanding of racism and integrity. It’s one view of how kids put it all together.

Speaking of little angels, aren't there two little "boys" who light up your life?

I have two cute little boys, Toby and Otis. Toby is my grandson and Otis is my son, or I should say my puggle and grandpuggle. In case you don't know, a puggle is a cross between a pug and a beagle. They are smart! Toby and Otis know so many words. Get a toy. Go upstairs. Go on the steps and look for Missy, the dog across street. Best of all, they always greet me such excitement. As long as the temperature is over 30, I walk them an hour a night.

Vic's Toby and Otis