By Brenna R. Kelly
When her 4th-grade students at Camp Dick Robinson Elementary kept coming to school with their mathematics homework completed but not with the calculation methods she was teaching, Ruth Wall knew something had to change.
Instead of multiplying and dividing using the strategies called for in the Kentucky Core Academic Standards for Math, such as equations, arrays or area models, the homework was done the way most of her students’ parents had learned to multiply and divide – using a formula.
“What happens is you show the children the new way,” Wall said, “Then in the homework the parents say ‘You must do it the way I know how to do it, because it’s the only way I can help you.’”
So Wall, who has taught at the Garrard County school for 27 years, started giving marks for not following directions.
“The parents were furious,” she said. “But if I don’t give students marks for it, I’m saying, ‘It’s OK if you never learn it.’”
The only way for her students to learn, she decided, was to teach their parents.
Wall is one of a growing number of teachers across the state and country that are holding mathematics nights for parents, posting videos online, creating websites and sending home detailed sheets to explain how math is being taught – and why.
There are a number of reasons why parents have trouble today’s mathematics instruction, said Renee Yates, a Kentucky Department of Education instructional specialist.
First, it’s just different from how they were taught.
Instead of using borrowing and carrying, students now group numbers into 10s, they add and subtract using place value, and when multiplying and dividing they break the numbers into parts, draw area models or equations. Students are being taught how to use number sense to build the foundation of how mathematics works, Yates said.
The idea is that by using multiple strategies and showing their work, students will develop an understanding of mathematics reasoning, not just how to follow steps to get an answer.
Parents also may be seeing poor examples of Common Core math problems on social media or in the media, Yates said.
“Once they see some of those bad examples with no practical explanation, it sticks in their mind, ‘Why are we teaching kids math this way?” she said.
“We have to figure out how we can educate our parents to understand the reason why we want kids to be able to understand flexible thinking with numbers,” Yates added. “Many of us didn’t like math in school and part of that, is that we were taught to use a series of specific steps of borrowing and carrying numbers and not to think about what the quantity of the numbers really meant.”
After a Lincoln County teacher recently told Yates parents were struggling to understand, she gave presentations on math instruction to the parent/teacher groups at all six Lincoln County elementary schools.
Yates shared videos, showed several math strategies and explained the reasons behind them.
“By the end of the evening the one parent that was there, who was vocal with her negative comments, she came up to me at the end and said, ‘Now I understand,’”she said.
Whitesville Elementary preschool teacher Donna Howard heard similar concerns from parents during conferences at the Daviess County school when she explained how students were learning mathematics.
Many of the parents were never taught with number lines, 10 frames, tally marks, number racks or dice, she said. They assumed math instruction in preschool involved counting and identifying numbers.
However, the foundational skills of creating sets, sorting and finding patterns will give the students better understanding when they learn to count, Howard said.
Howard decided a quick conference wasn’t enough time to adequately explain the concepts and the importance of early math skills, so she is planning a math night for both preschool and kindergarten parents.
She plans to tell parents that she gets their frustrations. She was taught differently and used to teach math that way, until she began attending a professional learning sessions from the Erikson Early Math Collaborative.
“It was such an ‘aha moment’ for me,” said Howard, who now trains other preschool and kindergarten teachers in Erikson’s techniques, “and it really made a big difference in the achievement of my students, they really understand it.”
At her math night, Howard plans to teach parents the math games she plays with students using simple inexpensive math tools, let them make the tools and take them home to use them with their children.
“The sooner in their child’s education that we can let our parents know about this,” she said, “I think it will help them develop that deep mathematical understanding.”
Wall’s first parent night was held last year after she received the complaints about giving student’s marks for not following directions. This year she decided to be proactive.
She held parent sessions before her multiplication and division lessons.
At the events, she showed a video, directed parents to her website and used a PowerPoint presentation, but she started by asking parents to solve a problem.
“Interestingly enough, some parents solved it in their heads, usually exactly the same strategy I’m teaching their children,” she said. “They had just never seen it done on paper before.”
Wall also explained to parents that while she is teaching their children several different ways to multiply and divide, they will eventually learn – what she calls tic-tac-toe, crossing out the ones and adding a zero to hold the one’s place when multiplying.
And when they learn it, they will see it as a shortcut.
“They are going to have a full understanding of what is going on,” she said. So while it might seem silly to parents to make 20 rows of 50 dots to show 20 times 50, students will understand math concepts earlier and at a much deeper level than their parents did, she said.
“I wanted the parents to know, just give me time to teach them my way and then you can show them your way, once they have the building blocks they can understand why you are doing what you are doing,” she said. “I really like the direction we are headed in math, it’s just convincing parents.”
Renee Yates firstname.lastname@example.org
Ruth Wall email@example.com
Donna Howard firstname.lastname@example.org