Mastering math


Just the mention of the word can send shivers up the backs of many. Memories of algebra problems you never thought you would solve or geometry tests that you never thought you would pass can keep you up at night. Yet, as parents, we try to push these ugly math flashbacks to the back of our mind, and do our best to convince our children that “math can be fun.”

And believe it or not, these days, it can.

From the teacher who came up with the “12 Days of Factoring” song or the companies with the kid-friendly websites, learning math is now enjoyable and taught to be more practical than ever before by teachers that recognize that everyone is geared to learn math in a different way.

“More so than in previous years, students are now expected to know their strengths and weaknesses in math and what they need to do to improve,” explains Andrew Gilhooly, Secondary Learning Leader, and Head of Mathematics at British School of Chicago. “There is no ceiling to their learning in any grade which can mean a class has multiple levels of differentiation ensuring that all students are progressing and learning. No student is ‘treading water’ (completing work they already know) or ‘drowning’ (trying to complete work that is far too difficult and they are not able to progress).”

“Here at Waldorf, we strive to make mathematics fun, challenging, and humanly meaningful,” explains John Trevillion, 8th grade teacher at Chicago Waldorf School. “The last thing we want is for students to think that they can’t do math.”

In some cases, making connections from math to other subjects’ curriculum is just what the students need to better understand what can often be difficult skills.

“Often the light bulb goes off for my kids in Algebra when I show them how the math skill I am teaching correlates with the science experiment they did last week,” says Clare Detzler, middle school math teacher at DaVinci Academy in Elgin. “Math should not be taught in a bubble. You need to make math make sense to them.”

Often, this means pointing out real life examples of how all of us use math in our daily life.

“There is something to be said for mental math skills,” adds Detzler. “Go shopping and ask your child what the price of the sweater is at 30% off. Let them learn what it’s like to figure it out in their head and teach them how to estimate first so they would immediately know if a number (or answer) makes sense or not.”

Of course, no skill can be mastered without daily practice, and as students reach their middle school years, much of this practice will occur both in and out of the classroom.

“Our teachers usually engage the students in quick, on-your-toes mental mathematics,” says Chicago Waldorf’s Trevillion. “By 8th grade such activities can be quite challenging, involving multiple operations that include powers and roots.”

Re-enforcement of these sorts of math skills outside of school time is also vital, but thankfully, there are now a bevy of websites that make it possible for parents to better support their child’s studies at home.

“These websites have the ability to help the child learn if they are doing the problem correctly, and also teach them what they might be doing incorrectly,” says Beth Blaetz, Director of Teachers and Learning at Quest Academy in Palatine. “There is also usually a fun component where they are awarded with various virtual rewards that they seem to love.”

Supporting teachers in their quest to instruct their students in mathematical studies is often via the help of associations such as the Illinois Council of Teachers in Mathematics (ICTM), in which Illinois Math and Science Academy (IMSA) Mathematics Faculty Member Dr. Don Porzio was just named as President. Dr. Porzio, who is in his 14th year of teaching mathematics at IMSA, said his primary goal as ICTM President is to increase membership to the organization.

“One way I hope to do this is to work with the Board and members of ICTM to make our web site the “go to” place for mathematics teachers and teacher trainers in Illinois,” Dr. Porzio said. “To this end, we already have created an ICTM YouTube channel (ictmmedia) where you can find video of the ICTM pre-conference keynote address by IMSA charter mathematics faculty member Sue Eddins.”

“Understand that mathematics learning, like all learning, does increase over a child’s development,” concludes Holy Cross Principal Janice DiVincenzo. “Hold high, but realistic expectations for children regarding their responsibilities for math assignments.Encourage them to utilize the online resources available to them and utilize those resources themselves if they are not feeling they can support their child. Provide positive reinforcement and support of the child’s independent efforts at improving their math achievement. Have patience, the “aha” moments may come later for some students than for others, but that does not mean they are not learning.”

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