Dundee Elementary parents stared intently at fourth-grade teacher Ben Darling as he demonstrated one method his students might use to multiply 26 by 35.
Instead of using a traditional multiplication method, Darling drew a box with diagonal lines, part of the lattice method used in OPS’s new elementary math program, “Go Math!”
The numbers were broken down into smaller multiplication problems, organized in the small lattice boxes and added up. To anyone used to using a straight algorithm, it didn’t look simple. It didn’t look quick.
“This is fourth-grade math?” one parent whispered.
But Darling said the method is just one of several options kids can use to arrive at the same answer: 910.
He estimated there are five or six different calculations students can use for multiplication. More than half of his students might opt for the lattice method, with just a few using a conventional formula.
In time, most will probably drop the drawings and the diagrams as they master multiplication and division and move on to more advanced equations, but for now, the different ways might suit their personal learning style.
“We learned only one algorithm style,” he said. “If you didn’t learn it, you didn’t get it right. These kids have multiple ways to solve a problem.”
As schools across the country increasingly shift to math standards — Common Core-aligned or not — with a deeper focus on problem-solving, perseverance, abstract concepts and complex word problems, many parents are becoming pupils again.
Eager to help their kids with homework but perplexed by new math strategies like mental math, they’re streaming math videos online, poring over textbooks and attending parent math nights or PTO meetings like the one at Dundee. This year, three parents have stopped in at Darling’s classroom after school to ask questions about Go Math! and brush up on their own math skills.
PTO Co-president Dan Rock said he could only shake his head in confusion when his fourth-grader brought home math problems using the lattice method.
“I said, ‘What are you doing?’ ” he said. “But she’s really latched onto it.”
Math teachers and curriculum specialists in the Omaha Public Schools and Bennington said they’ve found students are more confident and enthusiastic about math, even as students are asked to drill deeper and learn more challenging concepts at younger ages.
“The kids, they love it. It’s almost a competition, how many different ways they can solve a problem. It’s giving them confidence to attack the really hard word problems coming out on the state test,” said Bennington fourth-grade teacher Jennifer Flynn.
Bennington adopted a new math program several years ago and has partnered with Gretna schools and the University of Nebraska at Omaha to increase math training for teachers. There, kindergartners are way beyond just learning to count to 10. Teachers might start introducing them to fractions by showing them half a cake versus a whole one.
“I’ve had parents say, ‘I didn’t learn it that way, so it’s hard for me to explain it,’ ” Bennington Elementary first-grade teacher Kellie Backlund said. “I tell them, let your child lead you and help you understand their thinking.”
To help parents get up to speed, teachers can send home cheat sheets and links to instructional videos or practice problems. Many schools host curriculum night in the fall to show what will be taught over the next year.
Building a math vocabulary is stressed, so even first-graders go home with math vocab lists reminding them to call the corners of shapes “vertices.”
While Flynn said many parents appear impressed with the rigor of the lessons, words like “partial quotient,” the emphasis on using manipulatives — items like blocks, beads or cubes that can physically and visually represent numbers or concepts — and the multiple methods for problem-solving might seem foreign to some.
“People our age aren’t always receptive to change,” Darling told parents on Thursday. “They don’t like when a 10- or 11-year-old comes home with a problem they can’t do. It’s frustrating.”
Darling also admits that the Go Math! program adopted by OPS for grades K-6 last year isn’t immune to criticism. Some methods might take longer or take more steps than traditional formulas, and the increase in word problems can prove challenging to kids who struggle with reading or are English Language Learners. Parents and pundits have taken to Facebook and Twitter to mock some of the wordy, overly complex problems found in various Common Core-aligned programs.
OPS increased its math instructional time this year, in part in response to concerns from teachers who said they needed more time to teach the new program.
While Nebraska is one of a handful of states that haven’t adopted the Common Core State Standards, a consultant found the state’s math standards don’t differ dramatically from Common Core. Several districts, limited by the national textbook market, use Common Core-aligned programs and textbooks such as Go Math!
Buffett Middle School teacher Tracy Larson teaches seventh-grade math, but not through the Go Math! program, which stops at the elementary grades.
But over the past decade, she and her colleagues have prioritized conceptual thinking and problem solving over just memorizing formulas and practicing shortcuts.
Kids are still learning those basics, teachers said, but the trend has moved toward understanding what those formulas represent and how they can be applied in the real world.
That means having kids use manipulatives to grasp what the x’s and y’s in algebra equations stand for and how they differ from real numbers. Instead of sending a few students to the blackboard to solve a problem, Larson might break students up into small groups and have them explain to each other how they derived a solution.
“Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have done that,” Larson said.
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