Common Core Help for Parents: Educators and Parents Can Work Together

A friend of mine forwarded his child’s math homework to me the other night. His son is a third grader at a great school in the community in which I live.  His son’s homework had a problem like this, and both the father and son were at a loss for how to solve it.


Parents having a hard time understanding Common Core Math need support from educators as we make the shift together.

There are a few important things to note. Number one, the amount of attention “New Math” and “Common Core Math” has received in the media has been non stop and very negative. This leads to parents feeling frustrated with schools for not communicating this new shift in mathematical thinking. In some ways, this is a failure on our school system, but in other ways it is a lesson to not always believe everything we read/see in the media. Much of the information out there is false.  For example, many parents ask me, “Why don’t you just teach the traditional algorithm?” We do teach it, but we teach a whole lot of understanding before introducing it so they don’t have to memorize a meaningless set of procedures. Luckily this father is open minded since he did not have a great experience with math himself as a child, and he wants to do his best to learn along with his child.

The other thing that is so common when parents are frustrated with Common Core Math, is that they haven’t been taught to think of math as a problem to solve, as a puzzle. Instead they look at it from the angle that there must be only one way. How can you blame them when they were taught math this way? It isn’t their job to learn this new shift in thinking without any support from us. We all go back to what we know, and what they know is that they were taught to memorize. This same attitude is common for children in their math classes as well because teachers are trying to shift to deeper thinking activities for our students.  (Sadly, math curriculum/textbook companies in the U.S. is not there yet.) This is a HUGE shift that will take time!

So in the meantime, let’s work together with our parents about math. Actually it doesn’t matter if your school has adopted Common Core Math at all, these are positive messages for ANY parent. Let’s tell them:

  1. It’s okay that you don’t know the answer immediately to your child’s homework. Math is not fast anymore, in fact it should be both slow and messy. Many times there is more than one way to solve it or show your thinking.
  2. Ask your child questions like it’s a puzzle that you are trying to figure out together.
  3. Try to google your way through it…I was able to solve ratio tables last night with Khan Academy, something I haven’t thought about since middle school.
  4. Be open minded and positive about it.  Sometimes adult’s (both teachers and parents!) negative attitudes about math will transfer to the student, causing even more stress and anxiety.
  5. If all else fails and there is no way for you both to figure it out, write a note to the teacher. We’ve all had to learn this math differently as well, and we get it! We won’t be upset with your child for not finishing!

By the way, here is how I thought about that problem above. If you thought about it a different way, I’d love to know your solution!


Parents, keep on advocating for you and your child.  We need to know if you don’t understand, and we can all make math meaningful if we learn together. What other positive messages would you like to tell parents so that we can work together?


Small Steps for Differentiation: Same Task – Different Entry Points

When thinking of differentiation in the classroom, it is easy to fall into the trap of putting pressure on ourselves to perfectly level activities for every student. My mind goes to having a rotated set of groups and centers all perfectly ready to go. In this scenario you never run out of time, every student is exactly where they need to be, AND they are accountable, focused and staying on task the entire time.


Don’t get me wrong, math workshops are a beautiful thing, but it doesn’t always work as smoothly as we’d like. It is okay to differentiate in small ways, taking small steps to be sure that we are meeting the needs of all children without going crazy ourselves.

This past summer I was lucky enough to read work by Timothy Kanold, and then I was able to work with him in a workshop as well. He proposes that instead of coming up with different activities for every student, we have the same task, but with different entry points. So what does this look like exactly?

Here is an example for a second grade classroom where the learning target would be “I can count money up to a specific amount.”(CCSS 2.MD.C.8):


Task: How many ways can you build 58 cents? Build it and record it.

All of the students in this group are given the same task, but usually all of the students have different levels of knowledge surrounding this task. So instead of coming up with 25 different activities you have only one.  As the activity begins and students begin to work, two things will happen which we all can predict every time. Some students will struggle, and others will fly.  This is when you strategically give certain students more.

For the students who struggle in this case you would lay down another task next to it, where the number is more accessible, and you may also consider telling them the value of all of the coins.


Instead of 58 cents, the students who struggle are working with a more accessible number, side by side with the other students.

In this case for the students that are excelling there are many options: ask them to find the solution if you eliminate one of the types of coins, ask them to show their thinking algebraically using a table, give a different amount and have them predict the number of solutions they may find before solving, or ask them to write a story in which you may need to come up with 58 cents worth of change.

The main thing is that you have to truly be walking your room, listening to your students and conferring with them as they solve. The BEST part of this method, is students are working together and hearing one another’s thinking, elevating the learning for all in the room.


Build A Strong Math Culture With The Standards For Math Practice

With all of the current criticism about the CCSS and “Common Core Math” (I put that in quotes because that phrase has been driving me crazy, now that is another blog post in my mind), I’ve been happy to see that the Standards for Mathematical Practice have been left alone.

I’m glad that they’ve been left alone in the criticism because the Math Practice Standards are all encompassing thinking habits, more than they are standards to be met.  They encourage us to teach mathematics more as a learning subject than a performance based subject. Math absolutely should require lots of messy critical thinking, deduction, discussion and reasoning.

Someone last year said/asked me, “I just don’t understand what these standards are for.  What are they?” I explained them the best way I could, since I had just spent a month researching them to know them better:

  1. The math practice standards are a set of math habits, ways in which we should think about math. (That sounds so simple, but the way the standards are worded, it has driven many of us crazy while trying to understand them.  Reason abstractly and quantitatively? Huh?  It sounds like a completely different language!) The standards are all about developing positive habits and attitudes about math.
  2. They allow students to explore math as a learning subject.  They begin to understand that math is not about the teaching asking a question, and the student must answer it correctly. Most importantly they begin to see the connection to their lives.  Math connects so beautifully to real life, but because the U.S. has such a worksheet culture, we’ve lost that connection.
  3. Math from K-12 has the same underlying theme with these standards. As the years tick by the content standards become more complex, but the practice standards remain the same.  With the Standards for Mathematical Practice, we can develop a very positive culture surrounding mathematics.  A culture of persevering when encountering a problem, making sense of the world with math, using prior knowledge to solve new problems, being precise and reflective, patterning to find faster ways of working, explaining our thinking, understanding others thinking, knowing what tools will best help to solve problems, and connecting the world with abstract numbers and symbols. This all makes us excellent THINKERS.

We’ve had math coaches, administrators and other teachers pass out posters to put up in our classrooms. We’ve seen freebies and posters that we are meant to download and print. We’ve put them up on our walls with very few of us digging in to what they actually mean. I WAS one of those people. I had a poster of the kid friendly standards up for two years, and it wasn’t until last year that I realized one of the standards was completely inaccurate on the poster.  I had never bothered to check, and I assumed that the source knew the standards.  Can you blame me? I didn’t have the TIME to dissect what each one means.  It felt like another thing…another plate to spin…another added responsibility. I truly didn’t understand the importance of the standards to create a culture.

When I decided to figure out what they really mean, introduce them to my students from the start of the school year, work through the problems with them, and embed the language in the classroom, the culture really changed. We became mathematicians who could work through anything. It was remarkable. We put our work on the walls to help remind us that these were to be a part of our classroom daily.  We truly became vicious problem solvers, we worked together and math was about learning.  Math became FUN.

After a month of research I created posters, problems and activities to help myself understand them, but also to help teachers understand them, too.  (Feel free to check out the preview which walks you through the first standard.)

Build a culture by introducing, working with and revisiting the Standards for Math Practice.

Build a culture by introducing, working with and revisiting the Standards for Math Practice.

Even if the Common Core goes away (which it most certainly will, and already is in many states), I will always keep the Standards for Mathematical Practice.  It is a foundation in which we can all build upon, year after year!



A Team Approach to Learning Math Facts

(I wanted to title this post Ugh! %#$*% Math Facts, but somehow that didn’t seem very appropriate!) Sometimes I feel as though I am banging my head against the wall in an effort to help students learn math facts. There are many ways to practice in our room with a weekly set of facts (differentiated to their needs): building them, arrays, number lines, fact families, strategy work, drill, flashcards…

But we’ve hit a point in the school year where the students are less than happy to practice.  Whenever I mention math fact practice, I hear groans and moans about it.  IT IS DRIVING ME CRAZY. I started to look at their behaviors, noticing that when it was time to practice math facts, their efforts were half hearted as if they were on auto-pilot. I was having to track down who was practicing and who wasn’t.

On April 4th, I noticed only 7 people out of 25 students got 100% (10 out of 10) on their weekly math fact quick check.  I was completely at a loss because this number had been falling every week. My students know that I hold very high expectations, which means that somehow we were failing each other.

So I really started pushing them to practice at school, even twice a day at times for the next week.  I rewarded and recognized students who had completed their wok, and took photos of really cool strategies to put up on the interactive white board.

One week later right before we were about to start our quick check, I wrote this on the board:

Tips for Learning Math Facts

I explained that only seven people had gotten 100% last week.  I told the class that today I would keep track of the number of students who received 100%, and the difference between the two would be the number of extra minutes of recess given next Monday.  Here is what happened:

Tips for Learning Math Facts


We had a quick class chat after it was over. I offered this deal to them each week, April 4th was the baseline, the number of minutes of recess was up to them. I asked them if they could work together as a team to meet their goals. Here were the agreements that they came up with together after I told them it was a standing offer:

  1. Practice every morning when you get to school.
  2. Add 5 minutes of math fact practice at home.
  3. Practice when we finish our math assignment during math class
  4. Quiz each other on our math facts throughout the day

We will see how they do this coming Friday.  I am really interested in rewarding their hard work, and if it is a few extra minutes of recess, so be it!


Crank It Up a Notch: Add Something They Can Touch When Problem Solving

One of my favorite ways to amp up problem solving is to throw something into the mix that they can touch.  This makes the project or problem so much more interesting to students in one instant.  We are working on the Design a Dream Bedroom project, so I picked up some free samples from the hardware store:

Hans On Real World Math

Give them stuff to touch when they are working on real world math activities.

Of course you can be sneaky about introducing the materials.  Before I even went over the problem during math, I spent the morning organizing the materials on a common table when they were arriving for the day. I got about a million questions, and hands were reaching out to touch the carpet and flooring samples before I could even get them in the bucket.

That is all I needed to do to get them interested in the problem.  After I read through the introduction with them during math problem solving time, the students literally leaped out of their carpet spots to run up and grab the problem from me.

That is what we want problem solving to be like…exciting, engaging, rigorous and motivating! Putting things in their hands to make it real world has worked every time.


Discovering Numerator and Denominator with a Pan of Brownies

The way to a child’s stomach heart brain is most definitely with sweet treats. While I don’t like to sugar up my students, I do like when they can connect math to the real world.  That was exactly my mission when I brought in a pan of brownies.

Example of Real World Fractions

If all else fails, capture their interest with food!

So far at this point, we had examined the definition of a fraction, and thought about things that come in halves and quarters.  It was time to move into some more new vocabulary, the numerator and denominator of a fraction.

In came the pan of brownies.  I brought it over to a large rectangle table and had them all gather around me.  As they were salivating I asked them how I could split this pan into fractions so that we’d all get an equal amount.  I asked them to draw what that looked like in their math journals knowing that we had 25 students in the room.  This was easier said than done.

For some reason, a bunch of them abandoned the hard work we’ve done with arrays, and started drawing diagonals and squiggly lines all over their papers.  It was like they heard the word “fraction” and felt they needed to abandon everything they knew for this brand new concept.


Then, I asked them to start sharing solutions, and we started to get somewhere. Arrays popped up on the chalkboard, 2 x 13 arrays (“I didn’t want to leave the teacher out!”), a 5×5 array and a 3 x 10 array.  I asked them which one would get them the best deal.

The settled on the 2 x 13 model so that I could get a brownie (how kind!).  That was when I began cutting.  I handed out the first one and asked them to think about what fraction of the brownie pan they were getting. That was when I introduced the fraction in number form and explained the difference between the numerator and denominator. The numerator was the number of pieces they were going to get to eat, and the denominator was the total pieces in the pan. For example (Hint: This is not the actual pan of brownies I used, since the cuts became VERY small and very messy…they were super gooey! So…I had to whip up another batch tonight for this picture, YUM!):

Real World Examples of Fractions

The numerator and denominator suddenly became clear!

They didn’t REALLY get it though, until the last person got their brownie. At that moment, I gave her my piece, telling her how proud I was that she was so patient to wait and be last. That was when the numerator part really sunk in, because I announced that she was getting 2/26 of the brownie, while everyone else only got 1/26. It was a lesson in patience as well as a lesson in math.

It was a pretty sweet mini lesson!


Things That Come in Halves and Quarters: The Real World Connection

Whenever I have connected math to the real world, I’ve seen a boost in achievement in my classroom. Fractions are REALLY important concepts that must be connected to student’s lives. When I first started teaching, I would just plod along in the book. I would hand out worksheets with rectangle boxes that students would just fill in.  They’d write the numbers without really connecting it to much of anything. It was kind of a disaster!

Now, I love to collect real world examples, and put them on an anchor chart.  Because fractions are so abstract, we put this anchor chart together after brainstorming with a partner first:



On the student planner that day, I put an assignment to look for things that come in halves or quarters at home as well. We can always add more! Now, each time we talk about a fraction, we try to picture something from this list.

I am hoping that these concrete examples will really help them understand when I move them into representational symbols and numbers.