Helping Kids Connect with Math at Home

Hi, I’m Kelly Urlacher. I’m a Teacher Curriculum Developer for Dreambox Learning. And today I want to talk a little bit about parent communication particularly with the standards of mathematical practice and the Common Core Standards that are coming out. Parents should know what’s happening in the classroom.

Parent communication was always a huge part of teaching for me. In math, it was often a struggle to make a good connection between home and school. I would often hear from parents that this math isn’t the same as when they learned it or they weren’t good at math so, how were they supposed to help their children at home. First of all, math should be taught differently than when we learned it. The research in classroom success backs up the fact that there’s a small percentage of people that retain and learn math because they memorize, learn solely from lecture, and at worksheets, which kind of summarizes my math education. I would also tell parents they don’t have to be mathematicians to inspire, help motivate, and really get their kids involved in math even at home. In fact, many parents are great at math, but they don’t give themselves enough credit. They go to the grocery store and do mental math there. Restaurants is also one of my favorite examples.

One of my favorite memories of teaching parents about inquiry-based math was just a couple years ago. I held a math night for the 6th grade parents as I taught 6th grade for my whole school. We were talking about the upcoming unit on circles focusing on area and circumference. When I asked a group what they remembered about measuring circles, several people said they remembered vocabulary: Pi, Diameter, Radius, and that the combination of the three made the circumference and area in some way. Unless you use these types of equations on a regular basis, many are easily forgotten. Also, because they weren’t learned properly in the first place so that there were true understanding. I began my talk about the upcoming unit which was a lot more about exploration than equations, and even though the students were going to be finding a circumference and area, I was not introducing Pi yet. The purpose was to see the kids find solutions, patterns, and explore using their own knowledge and through math. Many of the parents looked unconvinced this was the best way for the students to learn about measurement of circles, and I also was asked several times why I wasn’t sharing the algorithms and then giving them practice. I responded that I just wanted their children to find understanding and meaning, not just having exercise and memorization. So, I broke up the parents into groups and we decided we were going to play some games. We were going to solve for circumference and area, but we were not going to use Pi. And successfully toward the end of the night, my parents understood why Pi worked rather than being told that Pi is necessary to measure a circle. It was a very fun night, but very successful in our communication.

In the next few weeks, the exploration in my classroom around the measurement of circles was phenomenal. They used strings to measure, they cut out squares to see how many would fit inside circles and they tried to measure in many different ways. My favorite is we went out to the kindergarten playground which is one very large circle. And the kids actually took string and found the diameter and what they did after is they ended up finding out that diameter, about 3 times, made the circumference. They found Pi without me telling them about it. I received a note a couple weeks later from a parent. In fact, it was a parent I had the two older sons’ years before. He was thanking me for the great evening of math that I had presented, but also that now he had a better grasp on how to support and help and converse with his son about what he was working on in school. He also added that his son was more excited about math this year than any year before because of the interactivity and exploration that happened in our class. And I don’t know about you, but to excite 12-year olds, is quite an accomplishment so, I was thrilled.

The big picture here is that we want exploration and engagement in our math classes. Kids are brilliant and will find their own strategies to solve very complex situations. Is it still relevant and important to share algorithms? Of course it is. It’s really all about the timing. They should find understanding first instead of Pi being just a number that’s given to them – an arbitrary. It becomes “Oh, it was about three times around that kindergarten playground.” But true understanding, retention, and the love of math is stemmed through working, playing, and exploring in our math classrooms.

Thank you.

Kelly Urlacher
Teacher & Curriculum Developer
DreamBox Learning