Saturday, March 15, 2014

A new approach to math homework

Teaching math has been a challenge this year!  The Idaho Core Standards (CCSS) are a totally different animal than our previous Idaho Content Standards.  It feels like we're jumping at least one grade level worth of content and asking our kids to make more connections and solve more real problems than we ever have before.

It's terrific!

But it is tough.

Due to scheduling factors outside my control, our main math class is at the end of the day.  My kids are tired.  They also see mathematics as a somewhat passive activity.  Their thinking is "there is one right answer to each problem and someone will eventually explain how to find that answer."  They could get by with that attitude under our previous standards: but that won't fly now.

It feels like I tried a million different things for math homework. I sent home review computation, extra practice on our current topics, a few word problems, and work with our online math enrichment program. None of those ideas worked like I wanted. The review wasn't transferring, students weren't confident enough to succeed on their own with the current topics, life happened and homework wasn't done for the next day's class.

Then I read "Rethinking Homework" by Math Minds.  It was a revelation! Homework can encourage conversation about what we're doing in class.  I ask my students to explain their thinking to each other all the time.  Why shouldn't they build a home-school connection and explain mathematics to their parents, siblings, babysitters, and anyone else who can listen to them?

I made a form, put together a problem, and wrote this letter to send home:
Dear Parents/Guardians:

As you are already aware, we have been working with the new Idaho Core Standards this year. Although these new standards have changed my approach in all subjects, the biggest changes have been in math.  The Idaho Core Standards ask students to solve multi-step problems drawn from real world situations and to explain the strategies they used in finding an answer. 
To encourage my students to explain their thinking, I am trying a new type of math homework between now and spring break.  Instead of a nightly skill review page, I will send home a single problem like the one on the back of this page.  Each problem will list the some of the standards students will draw on to solve the problem.  In addition, there is a place for you to respond at the bottom of the page.  Since explaining strategies and understanding is key to success with the new standards, I would like your child to explain his/her thinking to you.  Explaining how he/she solved the problem to someone who may not be familiar with some of the strategies we’re using in class will encourage your child to clearly describe what he/she is doing.  After you have discussed this with your child, please mark a selection at the bottom of the page and sign it. 
Thanks for giving this a try!  Please let me know if you have any questions or comments. 
-Jim Windisch
I'm just two weeks and four assignments into this grand experiment.  I always give my students at least two nights to complete it.  A few of my students have come a long way in explaining how and why they chose strategies to solve problems.  Others have been able to teach their parents something new about math.  Some are struggling with this, but I am supporting them by encouraging them to stay in the struggle and occasionally being the adult to sign the form.

I like to think that it has opened up some more communication about school between my kids and their families.  I know I will be asking parents about it at conferences later this month. And I'll keep you updated as I continue to experiment and refine...

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