Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Developing Multiplication Concepts - the value of games and hands on activities

Well, it's been awhile since my last post.  I have changed schools and grades, so this has occupied a lot of my time.  I went from 2nd to 3rd and am very happy.  It was time for a change.  I am still in the same school district, but have moved to a grade 3-5 school.

Today it's all about the multiplication.  And I promise to get to that...

First, I want to say that while I absolutely can't stand the politics behind the Common Core I would like to say that some of the standards aren't that bad.  If you really read them you will probably agree that we fabulous educators were already teaching the standards as well as infusing critical thinking into our lessons all along.  But today I want to complain about textbooks, particularly my math textbook, which our district adopted because it was aligned to the Common Core.  I don't like it.  In fact, I don't like most textbooks.  I think I could write a much better version.  Gosh, I'm so humble, aren't I?  Why don't I like it? It is neither teacher or student friendly.  Most lessons are cumbersome and have 2-3 objectives for students to learn in one lesson.  Manipulatives are not built into the lessons and instead my students carry around a 2 inch thick workbook.  The lessons are teacher-centered and require the teacher to stand and talk for hours. (ok, that is an exaggeration, but it feels like hours, especially when the kids are zoning out)  Worst of all, is the fact that my third graders hate math.  At least they did when I tried to stick to the textbook lessons.  No elementary student should hate math!  But, the textbook can be used with my Smartboard, you say.  Isn't that wonderful?  Who cares when I, the teacher, am still the center of the lesson.  Sure, a few students can come up to the board and "interact" while the other 23 students draw smiley faces on the edge of their 2 inch workbook.

Enough of the complaining.  Now I'm going to get to the good stuff.

I am fortunate enough to work in a district that does not require I use certain materials or programs.  My superintendent and principal want me to use best practice in my teaching.  Isn't that fabulous?  So, put those bulky workbooks in your desk boys and girls - we're gonna learn some math.

Back to the multiplication.  I have always been a fan of Marilyn Burns, the guru of math education.  I was introduced to her lessons early when I was in college and continued to use many lessons and ideas from her books, published by Math Solutions.  But it had been a while since I had done multiplication.  Last week I pulled out my Circles and Stars lesson and it was a huge hit.  I forgot how powerful this simple little game was, and how much insight it gave me into my students' thinking about multiplication.

Our discussions after a round of playing the game were energetic.  Hands were up and everyone was engaged and wanted to share what they were beginning to notice.  How do you write 1 group of 4 as a multiplication sentence?  Oh look!  Every time you do 1 times another number it equals that number!  And they are equally delighted when they figure out zero groups of something is always zero.  Did you know that 2 groups of 3 is the same answer as 3 groups of 2?  And an investigation begins to find out if that is true for other numbers.  And it's fun to see them comparing and contrasting multiplication to addition.  Sometimes it seems I can see their little minds figuring it out and working through their confusion right there in front of me.  These hands on activities are priceless.  We must not let a textbook publisher determine how we teach a concept.  We must remember their first priority is selling a product, not educating children.  I do not think its wrong to make a profit, I simply think we, as educators. need to be smarter about the products we purchase and use in our classroom.

I've also involved my class in a study of multiples over several days.  We began with brainstorming things that came in groups - these lists will be used in future problem solving as well.  My students enjoyed creating T-charts to list the multiples of groups.  How many legs on 1 spider, 2 spiders, etc?  I thought using the hundred charts to color skip counting patterns would be baby-ish.  I was wrong.  This visual not only helped them see the pattern, but watching them incorrectly color the hundred charts showed me that many of my students didn't truly understand that skip counting was adding the same number over and over!  If they didn't know that how could I expect them to connect skip counting to multiplication?  Repeating these activities over several days helped my students to begin constructing their own understanding of  multiplication.  A worksheet could never do that!

So my teacher friends out there in blogging land - my message is to trust yourself.  The textbook makes us feel rushed. Look at how much we have to cover!  How will I get all these pages complete?  You know there is no reason you have to do every page in the book.  And a good hands-on activity often is a better bang for your buck - and covers several days of boring textbook instruction.  If you don't like the lesson in the book, don't use it!  Do you keep wondering why your students aren't "getting it"? Then try something different.  Play a game.  Do some hands-on activities.  Do it more than once. There is so much value and learning in playing over several days.  Slow down and enjoy the math!