Do the ‘new’ math
The sums are the same, but there’s growing pains
Teacher Carly Gordon stood in front of a class of Peterson Elementary first-graders last week. Behind her the equation 9 + 5 = __ stood out in bold figures on the smartboard.
“Now we’re moving into our fluency,” she told the children.
To the tune of “Frere Jacques,” she sang, “Decomposing addition sentence.”
“Decomposing addition sentence,” the children sang back in the same melody.
“Eyes up here,” Gordon sang to the “Dormez-vous?” part of the song.
“Eyes up here,” the children sang back.
Then they set to solving the problem.
“What number plus nine equals 10?” Gordon asked.
“One!” the children shouted back.
“So you’re telling me I have nine plus one that equals 10, right? But I cannot take that one from nothing. I have to decompose it from the five,” Gordon said. “If I took one from five what do I have left?”
“Four!” the children shouted.
“Nine plus one plus four equals 14,” Gordon said. “So if nine, plus one, plus four equals 14, what does nine plus five equal?”
“Because?” she asked.
“The sums are the same,” the children said.
Feeling confused? You’re not alone.
Students, parents, teachers and school staff in grades kindergarten through fifth are learning a new math curriculum in the Klamath County School District. There have been some growing pains, but school officials hope it will be worth it to make better mathematicians for the future.
Based in Common Core
“This is not ‘new math,’” said James Huntsman, Klamath County School District curriculum director. “It’s just our new math program.”
This year the county schools instituted a new program for grades kindergarten through fifth, called Engage New York. It aligns with the national Common Core State Standards, which align to the new standardized test: Smarter Balanced. Students took the first Smarter Balanced tests last spring.
“Our old math curriculum wasn’t meeting the needs our kids needed for going into junior high and high school. The program had to be changed,” said Huntsman. “It’s a jump into it, but the hypothesis is that the reward is going to be great.”
Testing in sprints
For instance, some classes complete math “sprints.” Like the old fashioned time tests, they are a sheet of paper filled with rows and columns of simple calculations. The students complete as many as they can in one minute. Then they take a break, usually jumping up and shaking out their arms and legs — and turn the sheet over, completing a second sprint.
Unlike the time tests, the goal isn’t to finish. The goal is to improve. The students aim to do better on side B than side A. Students shouldn’t stress over how many they got done or if they got them right.
“That’s what we’re trying to eradicate more with the math program, all of that stress and all of that,” said Jennifer Hawkins-Utley, principal at Peterson. “This is more about strategy, more about thinking and more about solving problems than just getting straight to an answer.”
Tutoring for parents
“I hated it.”
That was parent Alesha Earnest’s first reaction to the new math program. She has two children, Ty, 10, is in fifth grade, and Claire, 7, is in second grade. Both attend Peterson Elementary.
“After that first impression — I was scared to death my kids would never learn quick math — I put research into it, and time into it, and talked with the teachers,” Earnest said.
County schools are working to reach out to parents such as Earnest and help them understand the new program. Many schools held math nights, inviting parents into the classrooms to participate in a lesson with their children and play math games. Some schools are sending home newsletters and teachers are reaching out to parents to talk about this new curriculum.
“It’s pretty much a constant conversation,” Hawkins-Utley said.
“I’ve heard over and over again from parents, ‘we did not learn math this way,’” said Ferguson Elementary School third-grade teacher Jessica Norris.
“We’ve had some parents who were concerned,” said Kelley Fritz, principal at Ferguson Elementary, “because it’s so different.”
“It’s difficult sometimes for some of our parents,” Huntsman said. “It’s difficult for our kids. There’s been a language barrier, too.”
“I know it can be a frustrating time with families,” Norris said. “We want to help the kids as much as they want to help their kids, too.”
Website an aid, too
The district website has a page specifically for helping parents and students with their math homework. It’s under the “parents” tab on the district’s website. It contains links to examples of homework, and videos showing how to do the homework.
“They’ll walk a parent and a kid right through the homework,” Huntsman said.
Earnest said she is trying to learn the new math, too. But it’s difficult.
“I don’t have hours to put into learning that when I get home from work. I’m trying to raise my kids,” she said. “I’m not learning the math simply for time’s sake.”
Earnest spoke with teachers and learned how the math lessons build upon one another. Even though it seemed remedial, the teachers assured her it would help the children better understand the underlying concepts behind math quick facts.
“I’m still skeptical,” Earnest said. “Hate is not the word anymore. I would say I’m skeptical.”
“As adults we all learned to memorize the algorithms. We learned you carry a one, or you borrow from the 10s place,” Hawkins-Utley said. “The way the Common Core requires it to be instructed, it requires kids to understand on a deeper level: why you carry a one or borrow from the 10s place. Parents aren’t used to seeing all of that ‘why’ before they get to the how. It’s a leap for us.”
Teachers and parents alike are learning how to do math again.
“Teachers have to learn a whole new process,” Fritz said. “It’s just a completely different way of teaching math than we’ve ever experienced.”
Emphasis on problem solving
Norris agreed, she has been learning the math.
“I think it’s interesting,” she said. “It opens your eyes to a new perspective and looking at it. It’s not just the answer, it’s really about the process.”
“We’re introducing kids with more ways of combing and manipulating numbers,” Huntsman said. “It’s all different ways of describing values. You see different rounding, you see number bonds displayed, you see number line work, you see a lot of drawing. It’s not artwork drawing, it’s problem solving drawing.”
The deep end
In higher grades, jumping into the new curriculum is more difficult. The older children don’t have the background of learning this way for years.
“When you visit a kindergarten and one classroom, the kids and the teachers are learning it together and they’re fresh to it. When you go to a fifth-grade classroom, you’re jumping into the middle of a program where you haven’t had K, one, two, three and four before that fifth-grade program,” Huntsman said. “You’re in fifth-grade and you’ve jumped into the deep end without the complete background these younger kids are coming up with.”
In Norris’ third grade class, students have had to jump in.
“For the most part they do pretty well,” she said. “For some it clicks and some it doesn’t.”
For those not clicking, teachers work with them more, sometimes adding math time in what’s called intervention classes: time to practice more math at school.
Growing pains will ease
School officials say they’re already seeing a difference in the way students look at and practice math.
When Fritz walks down halls at Ferguson Elementary and peeks into classrooms, she sees more children playing with math.
“I see kids doing it more, playing around with it more. That’s good,” she said. “That means they’re liking it.”
The students are engaged. That’s different than a teacher lecturing and the students just doing what they’re told.
“What we’ve learned about how kids learn math is that they learn it through lots of discussion, lots of processing and lots of verbalizing with each other,” Hawkins-Utley said.
“This is a highly engaged program, not only for the kids, but the teacher has to be engaged,” Fritz said. “A lot of back-and-forth between the kids and the teacher. I hear a lot more math going on in the classrooms.”
She thinks in a few years, when the growing pains are done, it will be worth it. Huntsman does, too.
“Employers, colleges, and institutes of productivity, they’re looking for kids who can apply math at a higher level,” Huntsman said. “We’re wanting to give them a program that does that. That’s fun, and challenging for students.”