Mastering Math Facts (At Home)

I see parents as my partners in their children’s education.  The obvious reason is that parents are absolutely the most important people in their children’s lives.  They know their children better than anyone else, and they are an essential resource for information and problem solving.

And philosophically, I think it matters to kids when they see their parents and teachers working as a team, supporting them.  When I was a kid, my mom and my teachers were friends.  My mom was always involved — president of the PTA one year, making talent show sets the next — and school felt like an extension of home, a place where I belonged and was cared for.

There’s a practical component to this partnership, too.

I checked my math three times, and it’s still hard to believe: I have only 4 hours, 10 minutes of instructional time with students during the school day.  That includes 2 hours of English Language Arts, 1 hour and 10 minutes of math, 40 minutes of science or social studies, 15 minutes of handwriting or Open Circle (social skills), 10 minutes for Morning Meeting, and 5 minutes to write down homework.

Forget about transition times, and that’s still 4 hours, 20 minutes.  No wonder I’m always running late!

Match all that up with our very high expectations for student achievement, and some learning just has to be done at home.

Which bring me back to my partnership with parents.  I ask parents to work with their children throughout the year to master their math facts.  In our district, all third graders need to master addition, subtraction, and multiplication facts.  I do some work with students at school, particularly when we get to multiplication, around strategies for learning your facts.  But at some point, you just have to memorize them, and that work can fit well into most family’s routines at home.

This year, I am trying a new method to give some structure to this work.  My hope is that it will support parents and give kids a clear message: “We are all on the same team.  This is a big goal, but we know you can do it, and we’re here to help.”

My new solution was to develop a “Math Facts Plan for Success” that parents could write with their children.  I gave parents a head’s up in an email the night before, and the kids were thrilled that I was assigning parents homework.

Math Facts Plan for Success (PDF)

Math Facts Plan for Success (Word)

I was excited to get a lot of feedback from parents and kids.  A few parents asked me why math facts needed to practiced at home, which led to good conversations.  Many parents were excited by the opportunity to make a plan with their kids.  Their favorite part — and the kids’ favorite part, no surprise — was naming how they would celebrate each milestone.

I re-assess students every few weeks and send home the assessments with a letter reminding parents about practicing at home.  The letter includes students’ previous scores so parents can see how much progress their kids are making.

I reinforce all of this work in the classroom with an incentive based on effective effort.  Each time the class does an assessment, I tally up the improvement in each student’s score.  For every point a student improves from their baseline, they get to put a cube in a big jar, working their way up to a party.

Awarding the cubes is always exciting.  There is applause for everyone and a big drumroll at the end for the student who improved the most.  We’re not rewarding mastering the hardest test.  We’re rewarding improvement, and you improve by putting in effective effort, no matter what set of facts you’re working on.

The key is to keep the fire lit throughout the year.  With incentives at school and home, support from the teacher and parents, and all those cool internet math games, every student will achieve success.

— a. fox

P.S. If you want to read more about parent-teacher partnerships, I highly recommend The Essential Conversation: What Parents and Teachers Can Learn from Each Other by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot.  I read it and never looked at parent-teacher conferences the same way again.

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