Test Prep without Pain

Math test prep for spring standardized testing is always a bit daunting. Teachers face the same dilemma every year:

  1. Trust that we’ve taught everything we need to teach and go in with the confidence that students can apply it….
  2. Panic about things such as spiral review, cram in one last topic/unit, review vocabulary words and teach best test taking tips…

Both of those options are perfectly okay, but both make teachers and students feel a bit uncomfortable.  Without teaching any test prep, we worry that students won’t be able to “figure out” questions. Students feel nervous not knowing what to expect and want to feel confident going in. But too much test prep stresses out the teacher and the students, putting tons of pressure on them as they go into a testing situation.

I propose some test prep (for math anyway) without the pain of these feelings.  I came up with Reasoning Puzzles when we first began teaching with the Common Core State Standards.  As I looked at our state test, last year I realized the rigor has most definitely increased, especially the ability for our students to take apart questions and look for multiple solutions and answers.

Instead of flashing up multiple choice questions, students participate in small group discussion about “puzzles”and statements about those puzzles. Allowing them to talk over these puzzles, and make their mathematical thinking visible to each other, they become much more confident.  Testing truly is just trying to make sense of a problem, and looking for small nuances in how the question is asked, combined with calculations of some sort. This sort of test prep is fun, builds confidence in your students, and if done all year can create very powerful mathematicians.

I used them with my own third graders for years, and now with my intervention students.  I received a tweet from a woman named Lisa who took it even a step further and had her students write their own statements. What a great way to extend the learning!

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Reasoning Puzzles give students a chance to think critically and to use the standards for mathematical practice effectively.  Feel free to check out the free sample to try them yourself if you’d like.

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Common Core Help for Parents: Educators and Parents Can Work Together

A friend of mine forwarded his child’s math homework to me the other night. His son is a third grader at a great school in the community in which I live.  His son’s homework had a problem like this, and both the father and son were at a loss for how to solve it.

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Parents having a hard time understanding Common Core Math need support from educators as we make the shift together.

There are a few important things to note. Number one, the amount of attention “New Math” and “Common Core Math” has received in the media has been non stop and very negative. This leads to parents feeling frustrated with schools for not communicating this new shift in mathematical thinking. In some ways, this is a failure on our school system, but in other ways it is a lesson to not always believe everything we read/see in the media. Much of the information out there is false.  For example, many parents ask me, “Why don’t you just teach the traditional algorithm?” We do teach it, but we teach a whole lot of understanding before introducing it so they don’t have to memorize a meaningless set of procedures. Luckily this father is open minded since he did not have a great experience with math himself as a child, and he wants to do his best to learn along with his child.

The other thing that is so common when parents are frustrated with Common Core Math, is that they haven’t been taught to think of math as a problem to solve, as a puzzle. Instead they look at it from the angle that there must be only one way. How can you blame them when they were taught math this way? It isn’t their job to learn this new shift in thinking without any support from us. We all go back to what we know, and what they know is that they were taught to memorize. This same attitude is common for children in their math classes as well because teachers are trying to shift to deeper thinking activities for our students.  (Sadly, math curriculum/textbook companies in the U.S. is not there yet.) This is a HUGE shift that will take time!

So in the meantime, let’s work together with our parents about math. Actually it doesn’t matter if your school has adopted Common Core Math at all, these are positive messages for ANY parent. Let’s tell them:

  1. It’s okay that you don’t know the answer immediately to your child’s homework. Math is not fast anymore, in fact it should be both slow and messy. Many times there is more than one way to solve it or show your thinking.
  2. Ask your child questions like it’s a puzzle that you are trying to figure out together.
  3. Try to google your way through it…I was able to solve ratio tables last night with Khan Academy, something I haven’t thought about since middle school.
  4. Be open minded and positive about it.  Sometimes adult’s (both teachers and parents!) negative attitudes about math will transfer to the student, causing even more stress and anxiety.
  5. If all else fails and there is no way for you both to figure it out, write a note to the teacher. We’ve all had to learn this math differently as well, and we get it! We won’t be upset with your child for not finishing!

By the way, here is how I thought about that problem above. If you thought about it a different way, I’d love to know your solution!

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Parents, keep on advocating for you and your child.  We need to know if you don’t understand, and we can all make math meaningful if we learn together. What other positive messages would you like to tell parents so that we can work together?

Things That Come in Halves and Quarters: The Real World Connection

Whenever I have connected math to the real world, I’ve seen a boost in achievement in my classroom. Fractions are REALLY important concepts that must be connected to student’s lives. When I first started teaching, I would just plod along in the book. I would hand out worksheets with rectangle boxes that students would just fill in.  They’d write the numbers without really connecting it to much of anything. It was kind of a disaster!

Now, I love to collect real world examples, and put them on an anchor chart.  Because fractions are so abstract, we put this anchor chart together after brainstorming with a partner first:

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On the student planner that day, I put an assignment to look for things that come in halves or quarters at home as well. We can always add more! Now, each time we talk about a fraction, we try to picture something from this list.

I am hoping that these concrete examples will really help them understand when I move them into representational symbols and numbers.