Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Why Computation Needs to Be an Essential Part of Elementary Math Class

 Every once in a great while, I like to watch a late night police drama. As a teacher, this doesn't happen very often because I usually fall asleep in my chair by 9:00 p.m. and I generally have other things to do. But when I do make the occasional effort, I love solving a good mystery before the so-called experts weigh in on things at the end of the episode.

Probably my favorite line from any of these shows goes something like this: "Please just stick to the facts, ma'am (or sir)." This is usually uttered by some grizzled old detective who has learned the hard way over the years that the facts, coupled with a little bit of theorizing on his/her part, are what it's going to take to solve the crime.

This is exactly how I feel about math instruction. I know, I know, it's not a popular stance in current trends, but please just hear me out.

If you read my last post, I described how I found myself teaching fourth grade math after years of teaching middle school ELA. What an eye-opening experience, to say the least. Imagine my surprise that as a college-educated woman with 20 years of teaching experience, I basically knew very little about fourth grade math. (Please note the heavy sarcasm.)

Oh, I knew how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide just fine. And as the the mother of two, I can divide any after school snack into equal fractions when given a semi-sharp cutting tool. You know, the things that help you lead a somewhat productive adult life for the past few decades.

HOWEVER, I soon learned I wasn't quite as equipped to show what I know on the theory side of things. I'll admit, I learned a lot, and I imagine this is how many parents feel when their kids bring home math homework. 

BUT--and this is a big but--do we emphasize the WHY and the HOW over the actual practice of DOING?

Before I ruffle too many feathers, I do realize it is extremely important for students to learn the why's and how's of mathematical skills and concepts. I also believe it is important for them to have equal, if not more, time to put those skills to practice. And I also believe those two beliefs can coexist peacefully in a math curriculum.

For example, if coaches spent most of their time teaching their players different plays and very little time practicing skills, how successful would that team be? You need to have some standard skills down in order to effectively execute those game-winning plays.

For yet another example, every one of my 9 and 10-year-old students could tell you why and how to drive a car in modern society. Most could tell you the basics of how to start the car, put it in gear, steer, and stop. BUT if given the opportunity to actually drive themselves (and boy, would they love that!), most could not successfully do it because they do not possess the necessary skills...and driver's license.

And that, my friends, is where most of the kiddos in my particular area are at when it comes to math. They can explain how to solve almost any kind of mathematical problem, but when the rubber hits the road, they don't have the basic skills to correctly complete the problem themselves.

I think we've all experienced as educators, and possibly as mathematicians ourselves, times when our students knew exactly what to do but didn't arrive at the correct answer. Why? Because they made a silly error with addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division. 

What's the solution to this problem? In my opinion: practice, practice, practice.

And here's where my math coach and administrators would faint. 

As a middle school teacher, I had the privilege of being on a team with one of the best math teachers I have ever met. We had a waiting list for parents wanting their kids on our team because of her. (I like to think the rest of us made our contributions too, but we all recognized she was pretty phenomenal at what she did.)😊

It didn't matter where our kiddos were in math at the beginning of the year, by the end of May, they were math rock stars. In fact, many of the kids finished their year with high school level test scores. Wow!

I once asked her what her secret was and she simply replied, "Weekly computation practice. It doesn't do any good for them to learn advanced mathematical concepts if they don't have a firm foundation to build on."

Why are the really effective things in life so simple? While this may not have been an earth- shattering revelation, it certainly has turned things around for many math students, my own kiddos included.

If you're convinced that computation practice needs to play a bigger role in your classroom, why not start today?! During our math intervention time, we have played games, worked on flashcards, taken timed tests, worked problems on dry-erase boards, and the list goes on and on. My students' favorite way of practicing math facts has to be BOOM Cards™. I have slowly been adding different computation practice decks to my Teachers Pay Teachers store and my BOOM store if you'd like to check those out.

Thank you, friends, for hearing me out on this not always popular opinion. I will hop off my soap box now, but I'd like to leave you with one final thought. I mentioned at the beginning of this rather lengthy dissertation (sorry, not sorry) that I lived most of my adult life somewhat successfully knowing basic math skills and a little bit of theory.

My question for you is: Would the reverse have been equally true? Would I have been able to lead a semi-successful life knowing mostly mathematical theory and not mastering basic skills?  (Okay, that's TWO questions, but I think they're good ones to ponder.)

I hope you'll agree that our students deserve a balanced approach.

Until next time...

Sunday, September 27, 2020

My Journey into Fourth Grade Math & Why My Math Products Came Into Existence

 Two summers ago, I came back to my hometown with two goals in mind: First, to check on my mother, and secondly, to sell a house I've owned for years. And like an epic Hollywood movie, that's when my life took a sharp left-hand turn.

When I arrived in town, I discovered that both my mother and the house were in worse shape than I had anticipated.  I knew that neither was going to be a quick fix, and I would most likely be spending the next year in my hometown. 

I tell you all this because my next move was one that I really don't think I would have made without that little backstory. You see, I had happily spent the past 17 years teaching middle school English, and I LOVED it! I loved the content, I loved the kids, and I loved that I knew what to expect each year.

Enter that famous quote about the best laid plans of mice and men, and you won't be a bit surprised to learn that the only job opening in my little town was for fourth grade.

Yep. Quite a difference there. Now I had taught elementary school once upon a time in the 1990s, but I thought those days were behind me. However, school was going to start in two weeks, I needed a job, and so I embarked on a new adventure.

I have to tell you in those two weeks, I got pretty excited about the fun possibilities that fourth grade presented. I could read Little House in the Prairie, Charlotte's Web, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to the kids! We could play multiplication and division games together! Oh. My. Goodness! The art we could create on Friday afternoons! Oh wow! This was going to be great!

Those of you who currently teach fourth grade and are grounded in reality know that my joy was shortlived. 

On my first official back-to-school day, I was handed FOURTEEN (!) huge binders and told that was my math curriculum for the year. What?!? Oh, and there were four large spiral-bound teacher manuals that comprised my ELA curriculum. These two subjects were what my kiddos would spend roughly 85% of their day on. Oh, and if I happened to be feeling the need for any kind of control, here was the grade-level schedule that I needed to strictly adhere to.

Oh boy, Toto...we aren't in 1999 anymore.

Now for someone who hasn't taught math for a decade or two, it would seem reasonable that a prescribed curriculum would be just what the doctor ordered. (See what I did there? Prescribed...doctor? Yeah, I've spent too many years in middle school. Haha!)

However, this prescribed math curriculum took quite a bit of prep time for me because it was mostly theory. Pages and pages of theory. Theory that I was was expected to know and deliver the next day.

And that in itself is not a bad thing. I learned a lot about math that I was never explicitly taught, and I like to think that learning the daily scripts help prepare me for my future movie career or at least a part-time gig on a soap opera when I retire.

But when did the kids put all that theory into practice? For all the pages and pages in that curriculum, there didn't seem to be a lot of student practice, in my opinion.

That's when I found out about this little thing called intervention time. A forty-minute slice of the day where the kids worked on a specific skill each week. And oh, there weren't any prescribed resources for this.

Y'all, this was such music to my ears! After nearly twenty years of creating my own lessons, my soul dearly needed to do some creating! I wasn't too worried about the ELA intervention time because I had tons of resources I had created over the years that I could adapt. 

Math was another story though. Somewhere in the past two decades, seventh grade math became the new fourth grade curriculum. I'm not kidding! I didn't learn about prime and composite numbers until I was in an advanced math class in middle school. Do we not believe in Piaget's findings anymore?!?

Anyway, I needed to find a way to get my kiddos to understand complex ideas and practice simple mathmatical skills. Every night I would pour over the math lessons my kids were expected to do and break them down into manageable skills. The next day we would practice them in small groups and then independently. I would take notes on what worked, what didn't work, and what needed tweaked. I also noted what types of lessons engaged the majority of my students and what were epic fails. I then took all of this information and began creating resources over the summer when I had the extra time. And trust me, I've only just begun to make the long list of resources!

And there you have it, folks, the story of how I began my unlikely journey of creating math resources.  It took a lot of time, research, and kid-testing, but I am so glad to have the experience of doing it. Because the vast majority of my students LOVED doing BOOM Cards™,  that's where I've concentrated my efforts for now.

Also, because I've taught middle school for so many years and have had to monitor countless study halls, I try to make my resources appropriate for an extended age group. If you're a seventh grader who hasn't mastered your multiplication facts for one reason or another, you don't want to be caught doing "babyish" looking practice. I try to find bright colorful clip art that my elementary kids would enjoy and that a middle school student could also appreciate. 

In my next post, I'll be discussing the importance of computation practice in math class. I hope to see you then!