Sense Making


One of the reasons I am so passionate about basic math understanding is a beautiful 24 year old girl named Cameron.  She was a wonderful student, but in her final years of high school she struggled with math.  In a very matter of fact tone, this daughter of mine will tell you she hates math.  Now, I don’t think math needs to be “one of her favorite things” (Sound of Music reference in honor of our favorite musical of all times), but I do think it would benefit her life to at least understand and feel confident that she can do math.

Last year, while Cameron was home from Chicago for the Christmas holidays, I happened to be working on a blog post about the division of fractions. (The reason this is still timely a year later is because of  the two national presentations I have done recently on the subject and my work with the common core.)  I decided to pose the problem in the post to her and her initial reaction was negative.  Being a mom, and a teacher, I wouldn’t let it go.  Being a good daughter she decided to humor me and play along.

First you need to know that Cameron was driving us down the interstate at the time, so there was no opportunity for paper and pencil calculations or the use of manipulatives.  The whole “math lesson” occurred through mathematical discourse and sense making.  My first question to her followed the tack of my blog post, “Banished From the Math Classroom, Don’t Ask Why….”.  At first, Cameron insisted she couldn’t think of a reason to divide 3 1/2 by 3/8 but before long we arrived at 3 1/2  pizzas and 3/8 of the pizza being a serving.  (For those of you who know me, I apologize.   I never let my students use pizza as the example but I was working with a reluctant learner who is a self avowed math hater.  I wanted her to continue and I was trying to build self confidence.)  With some step-by-step logical thinking Cameron arrived at 9 servings with one piece left over.  With only a little coaching on my part, she also identified the leftover piece as 1/3 of a serving.

Now, I am not deluded enough to think I converted my daughter that day, but she did say no one had ever helped her understand division of fractions in that manner before.  I am sure there were a lot of other concepts that she never had a chance to “make sense of” and that has led to her “attitude” about the subject.  I will continue to work on her over time but I hope that we can eradicate this “hatred” of math from our classrooms by spending more time in activities that lead to dialogue and sense making.

“Sum”thing to work on!

Hi, I am Renee' Smith and I began teaching math in, of all places, a maximum security prison. “I was 21 years old and 99 lbs. soaking wet. Some of my students were convicted murderers and as scary as it sounds, it was incredibly sad. Many of those men had failed in the school system and then turned to crime.” That early experience with public school dropouts, cemented my resolve to help future students understand and succeed in the area of mathematics. To that end I dedicated 16 years to the classroom, teaching 5th grade math through algebra. After obtaining my Masters in Education from Baker University, I joined the ESSDACK team in 2007. I have presented at the local, state, and national levels but my most worthwhile experience at ESSDACK has been working to take the fear out of math for teachers and students alike. Although my primary focus has been providing professional development in mathematics, I also devote time to podcasting and creating materials for teachers to use in their classrooms. My podcasts include, By the Numbers, Just Desserts and Math Snacks. Working at ESSDACK has provided me the opportunity to do many of the things I love. “I have the time to research current educational practices, I get to be creative, collaborative, and I meet tons of new people."

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