Math Appeal, Teacher Tips for Fun with Mathematics

by Carrie Smoot

Tracey Jones Saxon’s sixth-grade students at Walker Upper Elementary School just finished units on fractions, data and statistics. To illustrate prime factorization, she uses M&Ms, buttons and paper clips to help kids visualize the process. “Manipulatives don’t need to be fancy,” Jones Saxon says. “The important thing is to present material in different ways.”

April is National Mathematics Month. Nationwide, teachers are focusing on a balance between concepts and skills, realizing that hands-on experimentation and learning promote mathematical staying power. Maria Timmerman, Ph.D. a Curry School professor, says , “It’s harder to teach for conceptual understanding. Teachers are concerned whether they will have enough time.” Timmerman notes that in Charlottesville, 45 minutes to one hour is devoted to math.

Timmerman suggests that parents ask open-ended homework questions: “How do you solve this?” What patterns do you see?” Is there another way to figure this out?” Her students are prospective elementary school teachers. She teaches a pre-K-6 elementary mathematics methods course. Three mathematics curricula series—the Everyday Math Series, Investigations, and Math Trailblazers—have home instruction components. Jones Saxon says building confidence is key. “Our job is to support each student and match each child to the right learning approach.” She is troubled that so many students have difficulty with basic math. “For life skills and advanced math later, they need to know multiplication facts and other operations cold.”

Taking children to the grocery store and comparing prices teaches numbers, money and unit pricing. She suggests flash cards for arithmetic drills. Kids should know how to count before starting school. Math games and books, such as Elinor J. Pinczes’ “A Remainder of One,” reinforce concepts. Mnemonic devices, songs and dances are fun ways to keep facts straight. “Kids will understand math better if teachers and parents relate it to the real world,” she says. “We don’t do that enough.”

As a Central Virginia Writing Project Fellow, Jones Saxon made connections between writing and math. “Writers edit their work to make it better. Mathematicians go over problems until they understand the process.” She assigns homework every night and encourages kids to practice problems. She asks students to write in words how they solved a problem, showing her difficulties. Kids are more engaged in math when they write things down. “Otherwise, it’s too easy for them to tune out,” she says.

Children’s author and math teacher Greg Tang connects creativity and mathematics. Like “The Grapes of Math,” its sequel, “Math Appeal: Mind-Stretching Math Riddles” (Scholastic, February 2003) makes learning fun. Written for 7 to 10-year-olds, “Math Appeal” combines arithmetic problems with poetic riddles and vivid illustrations. How many can your kids solve? Don’t worry! Tang provides an answer key.

“Smart grouping is the key to math,” Tang says. “Instead of having them group objects in 10s, I’ll use 11s and 12s to get kids to look beyond the obvious.”

Tang says some kids are scared by higher math because they haven’t developed number sense early. Parents help by showing how grouping makes life easier. Measurements are expressed in feet, yards and miles, not just inches. Time is divided into minutes and hours, not just seconds. When looking at a calendar, people talk weeks, months and years, not just days. Numbers are based on smart groupings, with place values based on multiples of 10.

“Somewhere, math turned into a set of rules and procedures, oftentimes with little or no understanding. I hope my books inspire kids to have fun with the subject while developing mathematical intuition.”

Tang’s “Math-terpieces” (Scholastic, August 2003), combines creativity and art history with math. “I chose 12 artists who were trailblazers and problem-solvers—including Monet, Renoir, van Gogh, Matisse, and Picasso—to show how math can be taught with almost any subject.”

Joe Garofalo is co-director of the Center for Technology and Teacher Education at the University of Virginia. “Our family attends all UVA home football games. Mathematics is displayed at Scott Stadium—yard lines, player numbers, scores and times. I asked my kids, as early as 5 years old, questions like: `We have 33 points and Florida State has 28. How many points are we ahead? Or: `It's second down and 7. How many yards did we gain on the last play? And: `It was second and 3, and now it’s third and 8. What happened? “To teach kids addition with regrouping, let them keep score”, Garofalo says. “My older daughter kept a running total of scores when playing Scrabble long before she learned two-column addition in school. She had no difficulty moving ten ones into the tens place by `carrying the one.’ Now my 5-year-old wants to keep score! My older daughter made up a game called Kids and Cookies for us to play as I drove her to preschool. I would give her a number of kids and a number of cookies and ask her how she would share the cookies fairly. It helped her understand fractions early.”

Debra Beale teaches fourth grade at Johnson Elementary School. “By seventh grade, students begin solving equations. If they don’t understand division, the process is a lot more difficult.” She believes strongly in rote memorization to make problem solving faster. “If students know 12 times 12 equals 144, they don’t have to figure it out on paper.”

Beale’s students enjoy competing in math bees, solving flash-card problems. “I made up a card game where kids have to multiply numbers to get the scores. I encourage practice at home with parents.” Homework strategies? Visit your child’s class during math. Talk to the teacher and copy the methods.”

Carrie Smoot is a Falls Church, Va., freelance writer who finally understands that math isn’t horrible.

Additional Resources: –
Fraction Shapes – –
National Council of Teachers of Mathematics –
Illuminations –
Kids and Cookies – AndCookies
The 24 Game –
Set Game –
Math Forum –
Newton’s Window –

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