Thursday, May 26, 2011

Turning Math On It's Axis

I love math. Love teaching it. Love seeing how mathematicians find beauty in numbers and formulas. As much as I love it, I have always struggled to teach it. It's the one subject ara that I have always struggled to teach because of all those darned worksheets. In my ten years I have experimented with a few ways to make math meaningful: games, tiered assignments, projects. With all of those things I felt as if the kiddoes were being short-changed.

There was one exception, though. A few years back they were erecting a new playground. I used this opportunity for my students to learn about perimeter, area, and measurement. Letting them see what it was like to do a big job like this, and how math was used in the real world. They loved it. Since then I've struggled to find and create authentic experiences like this one. I have often felt doomed to a life of utilizing worksheets and turning off an even greater number of children to mathematics.

Not a big fan of math programs, or anything pre-packaged for that matter. If it arrives in shrink wrap there's pretty much a guarantee that I will be completely turned off to it. There's something's about a book telling me what to say, think, and do that feels a little creepy to me. It didn't take long for our newly purchased, prettily packaged program promising
to differentiate and integrate technology to fall short of it's promises.

Then one evening I was sitting in my living room, looking at my website, and avoiding planning the upcoming multiplication unit. The folders with materials (worksheets) were sitting beside me. I don't recall exactly how it clicked, but I decided to create my multiplication unit on
our blog. I quickly pumped out 5 posts with a few design commonalities:
  • Open - ended ~ multiple answers to each problem
  • Language specific ~ had elements of story with embedded math vocabulary
  • Cooperative ~ the children we're expected to work together
  • Hands-on ~ a variety of manipulatives and materials were available to solve the problem
  • Communicative ~ the children were required to explain how they found their answers
And something happened in my classroom.  My math phobic students began to break out of
their math shells. They began seeing themselves as good at math.  And my students who
were good at computation we're now in a new place because they had the freedom to challenge
themselves because of the open - ended nature of the problems. They are learning how to do two-digit by one-digit multiplication because the problems lend themselves to that! And each
of those elements (listed above) that I ensure to include in each math post are the exact
things that my students say they enjoy the most about math.

So, what about the facts? I worried about that. And it wasn't until I had a quick
conversation with Dave Martin that I was
able to recognize it. Because of the conditions that I included in the problems my students
were learning their facts. Just Monday, one of my students did not know his 4's facts, but by
the end of math workshop he did. And he only worked on one problem! A bonus that I realized
just the other day was that everything I do from here on will build off of the multiplication, it will become a step in the process to solve a larger problem. Hmmm...something to consider
for next year...begin with multiplication!