Thursday, December 10, 2009

Strengths and weaknesses

Working in small groups, I've found that my students are at similar levels of math ability. In talking with other volunteers, what really surprises me is that their strengths and weaknesses rotate. One student may be really strong in one aspect of fractions, but will not quite understand long division as well. Another student may excel in long division but don't quite grasp the least common denominator. So in working with my small group of students, I'll get their strengths to come out and use it to help the other students.

Asking questions like, "How did you get to that answer?" or "Why do you think it's __%?" and asking them to explain to the other students their thought process tends to help the struggling students understand in kid level language. Research and personal experience shows that when a student has the ability to explain and teach a concept to others, they're showing they know the material, can put it into easy to comprehend language, and it reinforces their knowledge of the concept.

In dealing with math weaknesses, encouraging the students to not give up is really important. No one wants to feel like a failure or to feel like they can't understand something when everyone else seems to already know it. Using relational statements like, "When I was learning [fractions], it was really hard for me too, but I kept trying and now I'm really good at them" will encourage them to not give up, but relates to how tough a concept may be to learn at first.

Another thing I've taken up recently is guiding students through the process but not giving them the answers. Long division is a lengthy process that has a lot of steps and it can be tough for students to remember every step in order. We've been using long division to change fractions into decimals and I've guided them through the multiple steps.

Me: "Can 8 go into 3?"
Me: "Wait, 8 is bigger than 3, can 8 really go into 3?"
"No, so you put a zero on top"
Me: "What next?"
"You put a decimal point, and then a zero next to the 3"
Another student: "Bring the zero down"
[Usually there's a pause here when they forget what comes next]
Me: "Ok so what do we have?"
"How many times can 8 go into 30?"

On one hand, I think guiding them through the process is helpful, but I've seen that they depend on that guidance when they're working by themselves. Working in small groups, the students also depend on others to step up when they don't know the answer or aren't focusing on the problem. I've started calling on the student who isn't as engaged or clearly looking off into the distance. Calling them out like this tends to refocus them so I don't have to explain things multiple times.

As the year progresses, I'll put up more tips and tricks I've learned for working with students. I'll also ask other volunteers to help blog as well for dealing with other grade specific math content, student behaviors, or just 'a day in the life' of other volunteers.

Candy canes and fractions

Yesterday was even more miserable than in my previous post. I woke up to snow on the ground, which quickly progressed to blustery wind and freezing rain. I went and bought candy canes for my tutees because this is the last week I'll be working with them until the beginning of next semester. Walking to my schools, I think the candy canes comforted me more than my soaking socks and wet pants.

Working with my horseshoe group, we had a handout that reviewed lots of fraction work, converting to decimals and the like. I thought the session went incredibly well because my kids are warming up to me and we talk about other things in between problems. When I told them I wouldn't see them for a few weeks, one of my students got worried. I reassured them I would be coming back in January and she seemed ok with it.

Working through the worksheet, I showed them a shortcut for making fractions into decimals when the denominator is 5. They can just multiply the original fraction, both the top and bottom by two to get a fraction over 10, which is a lot easier to change into decimal form. After showing them the shortcut, I came up with problems not on the worksheet.
"But that's not on the worksheet!"
"Yeah, I know. I'm trying to challenge you."
And they really stepped it up and applied what they had just learned to the new problems. It was nice to know that they could adapt to new math rules and tricks.

When working with fractions, I find it really helpful to draw a fraction circle and ask them to color in sections. We also had a set of decimals they needed to change into percents which involves moving the decimal point. Once they understood the rule, they raced each other to finish and I 'quizzed' them on their answers afterwards.

I was so impressed and told them they were superstars (I even drew stars on their papers) because we finished early. I let them choose candy cane flavors and said bye for now. I'll miss them while I'm on vacation, but I'll have something to look forward to when I get back.

Thursday, December 3, 2009


After a few weeks of volunteering, it seems like I'm slowly but surely building relationships with my students.

One of my groups has been touch and go because the math format changes from week to week. Sometimes we're working on reviewing for a test and playing a Jeopardy game, and other weeks we're doing group work on a new topic. This week we worked on arrays and played a game with different size arrays. Only two of my students were at school yesterday which was nice. I had more attention to give to both of them, and I felt like I got to know them a lot better because of the small size.

One of my students shared stories with me while we were playing the game, and it's really helpful to connect with them. I talked with her about the Nutcracker and how their class is going to the Urban Nutcracker performance in a few weeks. She also told me she practiced her multiplication tables in the morning before coming to school and the roles her parents play in getting ready. I'm glad she feels comfortable enough to share with me and to talk freely. My other student I hadn't had much of a chance to talk to, but he's an energetic and eager young man who knows his arrays and multiplication tables well. He also enforced taking turns "I got the game cards, you gotta spread them out now." Overall, it was a very productive session. I also let the kids pick arrays for me to do with them and they tried to stump me, but it didn't quite work. :)

With my Horseshoe group, we moved out of the classroom and working at a table in the hall. I got to chat with them as we were walking from the class and found out their ages and got to connect with one of my students who wrote a story about his favorite animal.

This session was a little more tough because we were working on fractions, changing to decimals and adding different denominator fractions. It's tough even for adults, so explaining to the kids was difficult. We started with decimals first and the kids seemed to know what they were doing when we went over it as a group, but when I asked them to do it by themselves they struggled quite a bit. I was a crutch for them in guiding them through the long division, but I couldn't get them to understand the long division steps on their own papers.

We managed to get through maybe half of the problems, then we switched to adding fractions. This worksheet seemed easier for the kids and we walked through those steps to get their answers. I skipped problems that would've taken more time to explain so that we could understand the process clearly.

One of my students took it upon himself to try the hard problem and got frustrated. He didn't quite finish the problem and seemed down, so as we were walking back to class, I helped him go through the rest of the problem and he did just fine. I wish there was more time to work with each student one on one because he wouldn't have gotten to that frustration point if I had been sitting right next to him. He's independent and didn't want to ask for help, but if he had had the help, he wouldn't have been so disappointed in himself. I tried to cheer him up and told him he tried a really hard problem and managed to get pretty far, which I think he appreciated, but I'll try to give him more attention next time.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

24 can arrays

Yesterday I worked in two of my classrooms. My other two classrooms I didn't make it to because of some miscommunications, but I went after school and talked to the teachers about what had happened. Although I couldn't make it to the volunteering session, I think it was important for me to contact them personally and let them know what's up. I also asked about next Wednesday. BPS is on half day schedule for the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, so I checked and made sure if I was going in to class.

My last class was extremely productive and continues to be the exemplar of what Math Rules! should be. I'm going to start calling this class the Horseshoe class because we have our separate space to work during math. My four kids were working on fractions, percents, and decimals. We played a number line game that puts fraction cards in order next to each other. I think the kids enjoyed a hands on game, getting to review what they had learned the previous day, and taking turns in different roles in the game. We rotated who got to go first, who got to shuffle the cards (the kids were very impressed I could riffle shuffle and do the card bridge), who got to deal, and who got to tally up points at the end. Having my students take ownership and responsibility was good, and the kids realized it and pointed out who hadn't gotten a chance to do different roles.

My other class unfortunately had a substitute because our teacher was out. Although this blog is supposed to be positive and student focused, I felt so bad for the kids for having this substitute. He really upset some of the children and I was helpless in the situation. Despite this, the students broke apart and worked on math in several different groups. This made working with my four kids very difficult. I got to touch base with two of them and worked with them on part of their work. One of my students was absent, and the last student I still don't recognize his face. This is really unfortunate but I'll talk to my teacher about this the next time I see her. I did work with one student very briefly on his arrays and thinking about different ways to arrange 24 cans. After I finished helping him, I circulated the room a bit, and when I came back to him, he said "Thank you for helping me with the arrays." It was awesome to hear this from a student. It was the smallest amount of effort on my part, I guided him through what he already knew, but knowing that he appreciated my time and 2 minutes of attention was amazing.

After talking to Wendy on this topic, I think it's difficult to work with the same four students on a regular basis depending on the lesson of the day and also the format of the classroom. Getting your teacher to understand the program makes everything easier on the volunteer. It's also tough to assert yourself, as a volunteer, in the classroom and say no to whatever your teacher asks. Getting this perspective of how the program works (or doesn't quite work) is important for personal reasons, but also for improvements and suggestions for the program's future.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Volunteer surveys

We're working on getting volunteer surveys out sometime this week. This year we're trying to get more feedback from all involved parties in Math Rules! (students, teachers, volunteers, site coordinators, schools, and staff) so we're trying out more surveys. We're hoping for a significant response rate so we can continually improve the program.

I want to start promoting the blog as soon as possible so we can reach our volunteers and possibly even get other volunteers to blog as well, but I think we'll have to wait until survey activity dies down a bit before we can start promoting the blog.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Catching up

Hi there, I've been working on the logistics of the blog. I'm trying to get it cleaned up and ready to be put up for people to actually comment and give input.

Last Wednesday I went to two of my schools and worked with small groups again. I got a first hand experience of frustration and another experience of groups not working well together.

At my first school, small groups were reviewing for a quiz by doing Jeopardy-style team work problems on regular polygons. At first it was hard to insert myself into a group and assume that the kids knew what they were doing, but I found myself giving small hints that would prompt them along. Some of the groups responded well to my hints and I even challenged a group's answer. Asking them to clarify the question helped them see if their answer was right or wrong. The question was similar to: "Draw a quadrilateral that has four right angles." Asking the group "What's a right angle?" and "What has to happen with the lines for an angle to be a right angle?" are leading questions I asked them.

One group didn't work as well together as a group because none of the students were listening to each other. I tried to get them to listen to each other, but as the game progressed this group got more and more frustrated they weren't getting the right answers. It was certainly tough to convince them they just needed to keep trying and to work more as a team to get points. I tried positive reinforcement "You guys got this, you were close last time, just keep trying" but when it was time for me to leave, the group was still struggling.

Like I've said before, some competition is healthy for students to have something to work towards, but often, I wonder if competition is detrimental to learning.

At my second school, I was working with my small group of kids. We started off well, I asked them how things were going or if they had a good story to share. We jumped into unit reviews of multiplication and division. Some of the questions asked to show work for two approaches to the same problem. For example: "Solve two ways: 35 x 27"

Not being raised on different approaches to multiplication or division (long form was all I was taught) I had to rely on the students to help each other. Some of the students started with a box method that I suggested to the others, and I walked through long form multiplication and division for the kids. I would also like to argue that estimation is a valid solution for division.

One of my kids got really frustrated with a second solution for a division problem and shut down. I felt really bad that I couldn't get him to refocus on his work. I suggested he skip the problem and continue on to the next problem, but it took a quick word from his teacher to snap him out of it.

If anyone's reading this later on: suggestions?

Monday, November 2, 2009

1st week

After emailing the Math Rules! volunteers, I've gotten a few responses on how the first few sessions/first week went. Most of the responses I've gotten were positive, things going as smoothly as first days go. Many of our volunteers will be starting this current week so I can put up more responses of 1st sessions next week.

One of our volunteers did have a question about keeping students focused in their session. Here are excerpts from my reply. Please keep in mind I'm not a professional tutor/educator and only offered advice based on my previous tutoring experiences.
"Keeping kids focused is definitely a big part of the volunteer experience. I have found that a little bit of competition is healthy to keep them focused. And if competition is not quite what you're looking for, you can ask them to help each other out. For example, "Mary could you help Joe put his shapes together?" You could also try refocusing the entire group together, "Let's all look at Annie's tetromino."

The great thing about the math curriculum now is that it focuses on group work and building off other students' ideas to help them with their work. Make sure you ask open ended questions that build off of the previous one. I've learned that these questions are called spiraling questions that start off with very basic questions that make sure everyone is on the same page. Sometimes these basic questions may frustrate more advanced students, but math terminology is important to understanding math concepts.

I think that it takes some time for [the tutor] to understand how best to motivate your kids. It also depends on their personalities quite a bit. It's hard to prepare everyone for real-world volunteering during [Math Rules!] training. If focusing becomes a bigger problem throughout the year, I would ask your teachers for ideas and suggestions."

Thursday, October 29, 2009

1st day

Yesterday was my first day of volunteering with Math Rules! and it was both nerve-wracking and relatively comfortable at the same time. I've signed up to help in four different classrooms at three different schools, which seems like a lot but it wasn't too bad.

To start the day off, it was miserably rainy, windy, and cold all at the same time. My downstairs neighbor also parked behind me and I had to wait for him to finish his shower before I could go to my first class. Who's late to their first day of anything? Apparently, I am, but the site coordinator L was just happy to see me show up. She's a super nice woman who escorted me to and from both my classes.

My first two classes were with newer teachers at a school down in Dorchester. I was nervous to step into a class I wasn't familiar with, and sure enough all ~25 pairs of eyes were on me as I came in. But as the students started working, I walked around and helped them with their work and then they took an assessment test. I found three of my students while walking around, and a few other students asked me to help them as well. Not quite what I was expecting, but 1st days usually don't go as planned. Ms. H was quite welcoming and I'm sure I'll enjoy working in her classroom.

The second class was Mr. C's class. This one didn't go so well. There were noise issues and Mr. C was in and out of the class because of meetings. It was harder to connect with any of my students, I will have to talk to Mr. C about it next week. The students were working on dividing irregular polygons in half, and I had some problems with the work, as did many of the students. I think the layout of the classrooms makes it difficult to work with that small group of students, but I'll try to ask for space next week.

After catching up with L, the site coordinator, I rushed to my next school and managed to show up just a little late. Luckily for me, the students at the school were making flowers for the principal, it was her birthday. Mrs. M was super nice to me and made sure that I wasn't wasting my time even though class was behind schedule. Mrs. M's class was incredibly well behaved and I really enjoyed the class meeting they had. We finally jumped into angles of simple shapes and the students were really great at doing group work/note taking. I unfortunately had to get to my next class, but I'm looking forward to working with Mrs. M's class next week.

The site coordinator at my last school doesn't have an office anymore, so she met me in the main office. The students in this class were working on estimation as a group, then broke apart to do subtraction and checking with addition. There was a horseshoe table where I got to work with my four students. Finally! A class that sticks to what the program is working towards. It was really nice to work with the four students because one of my boys doesn't seem to be motivated to work. After he saw the other students working diligently, he finished up his work as well. All four of my kids not only finished the work on the board, but made up their own problems to solve. One of the girls managed to convince me to bring them treats next week. I might have to devise a reward system for them.

In summation, my first day of volunteering started off hectic, but ended well. It's hard to insert yourself into a classroom and pretend like nothing is different, but I hope the kids will warm up to me as the year progresses. I'm looking forward to seeing the differences by school, classroom, teacher managing styles, students, grades, etc. I hope getting this first-hand experience of Math Rules! will help in the future. I should also get around to promoting this blog as a resource for our volunteers as well. We're having a program meeting this afternoon, I'll see what we come up with.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Faxes galore

W is out today so I get all the faxes to myself. I'm snacking on coco puffs and trying to organize everything. There are so many forms to give out and get back, it's incredible. Not to mention each student has multiple forms and they don't ever come back in neat faxes organized by student and/or school. I guess this is how you keep faxes interesting.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Math Rules! Blog

First week of volunteering! I met with one of our first new volunteers JD today at one of the schools. Our volunteers will be starting all of this week and next week, I'm trying to meet with most of the new volunteers so they know where to go and who to contact.

I'm going to start volunteering on Wednesdays, I'm both excited and nervous. Being the new kid in class is tough. What if the kids don't like me? What if the teacher doesn't like me? What should I wear? I hope I don't forget all my math! I'm also going to three different schools and four different teachers, a whole day of math tutoring. I'm looking forward to being out of the office for a while. It's a shame I'm going to miss the Math Rules! training at Boston Partners though.

As Math Rules! Coordinator at Boston Partners in Education, this is part of my AmeriCorps and Massachusetts Promise Fellowship year of service. The blog is meant to be a resource for the Math Rules! volunteers, as a forum to document the Math Rules! volunteer experience. I hope other volunteers will find it useful, but we'll see.

More updates to come!