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? 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!

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