April 26, 2014

Modesto grade-schoolers play around with math

Math camp tossed the worksheets and turned on the learning as elementary students mastered place values using foam cups and word problems using paper airplanes in a joint project of California State University, Stanislaus, and Orville Wright Elementary in Modesto.

While lots of Modesto youngsters slept late through spring break, students in the airport neighborhood spent mornings in class, mastering math concepts by playing games and throwing paper airplanes.

The payoff is, second-grader Kailyn Campi explained, “You get smart.”

About 100 Orville Wright Elementary second- through sixth-graders took part in the voluntary math boot camp taught by students from California State University, Stanislaus.

Kailyn said she was feeling definitely smarter Friday after figuring the distance between the longest paper airplane throw, 20 linoleum tiles in the school entry hall, and her own toss, which flipped and crashed at three. Before pacing off the 17 tiles, she pondered whether to start counting at, or after, the tile with her plane. Fierce concentration furrowed her brow.

“She’s solving word problems. It’s just not written on a piece of paper,” said Wright Principal Heather Sherburn, watching Kailyn work it through.

The state Capitol took a minute Friday to praise April as Mathematics Awareness Month. “We want California students in all grades to engage with mathematics, because a math-based education is key to preparing for a career in science, technology, engineering and mathematics,” said Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont, during a weekly radio address. Participation of girls is particularly needed, he said.

Kailyn was way ahead of him. Her class saved kids from pretend-sinking ships by clumping in twos, threes and 10s. Second-graders also played a version of the game show “Deal or No Deal” to learn place values – was giving up 10 to get 100 a good deal?

Fourth-grader Kialah Gaines worked on the same concept, but she used a stack of seven foam cups, each with numerals up through 9 circling its rim. The top cup had no zero. The second cup had one zero tucked below the rim (the tens place). The third had two zeros, and so on. Twisting the different cups, she could create 9,999,999 numbers, and zero.

“You can rotate it, without erasing the numbers, and switch it,” she said, demonstrating. Kialah learned place values in regular class, and said, “now I get it.”

To help cement the learning, aspiring math teacher Maria Sandoval had youngsters use the stacked cups in different ways. “We had the kids say it out loud, as well as create the numbers. They had to recite it, create the largest number, create the smallest number,” said Sandoval, a math major at Stanislaus State.

University student John Dumaguing, taking a break from heated “Deal or No Deal” shout-outs, said teaching second-graders “is just a lot of fun.” But the fun comes after a 15-hour training session in bringing math theory to elementary reality.

Stanislaus State runs two math camps each spring break, one at Wright Elementary and the other at the university campus in Turlock, said math Professor Viji Sundar. Sundar said the program has applied for more funding to serve more low-income area schools next year.

This year, assistant professor Bjorg Johannsdottir led the Modesto camp, using expertise and ideas from her native Iceland. In that country, she noted, girls do measurably better than boys in math.

Johannsdottir, in her first year at Stanislaus State, has become a staunch supporter of Common Core math standards. The focus on clear concepts will serve students far better, she said, than the rote learning she sees teaching remedial classes of university students.

“They think everything is its own discrete thing you have to memorize. They don’t see the interrelatedness of math,” Johannsdottir said. “The (old) textbooks, they foster this kind of thinking.”

The goal of math boot camp was to help students get out of the lead-me-by-the-hand rut, for them to take the lead in solving problems, Sherburn said.

“The idea is for them to come out of this loving math, and realize it’s not just worksheets – to develop their mathematician thinking,” she said. Drilling with games and teaching with projects will grow under Common Core, Sherburn said. “Good teachers have done that in the past,” she said. “It should be the norm.”

Research shows that students who talk and work through problems together learn more, she said. “There are times when we know things in our head, but to explain it takes a deeper understanding,” Sherburn said.

Or as fifth-grader Sierra Haddock put it, “It helps in two ways. First, it’s fun, and you get to learn at the same time.”

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