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.