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Wednesday Wonders: Accessing My Math Brain

December 13th, 2017

{photo by Jennifer Wright}

Here’s a truly wonderful and inspiring testimonial sent in by Track A parent Brigid Moore, about the Singapore Math Training last week. Brigid and her husband Ken have been at SLOCA for 8 years, and four of their five children are at SLOCA: Abby (HS sophomore), Joseph (LMS), BrigidAnne (Primary) and Henry (JrK).

Last Friday, I had to forgo my family’s usual slow-start morning, shove my two youngest kids, barely awake, into the car, each with a slice of nutritionally-vacant Nutella toast in hand, so I could attend Singapore Math training.  ALL DAY.  Reluctant as I was, I was hopeful the training would provide useful tools to homeschool my kids.  I was not disappointed.

I am the mother of five kids, four of whom have gone through or will go through the Singapore Math program.  A couple of my kids seem to have been born playing with numbers, others have shied away from math, stretching my ability to make a challenging subject engaging for them.  I do not have a “math brain” and tend to favor language arts myself.  This is my eighth year at SLOCA and I have attended nearly every training the school has offered in Singapore Math.  

SLOCA recommended that I attend each kid’s current level of math as well as the level they’ll be in next year.  This meant I was supposed to attend EVERY session, from 7:55 to 4:00.  Really?!  I’ve been teaching this math program for years.  Was it necessary to do ALL the sessions?  Well, I thought, I’d quit when I couldn’t take it anymore.  I surprised myself when I left that afternoon having attended every session and especially excited to share my new-found algebra skills with my older kids and husband.  What could I possibly have gleaned from the day that I didn’t already know?  

The Kindergarten teachers reinforced the importance of using concrete objects to cement understanding of numbers and spatial relationships.  They passed around games, new to me, to add to my Christmas list for my four-year old.  They also were a great reminder that Kindergarten math can be integrated into everything we do in the day; that it doesn’t have to be (and indeed shouldn’t be) done with only a paper and a pencil or flashcards.

{photo by Jennifer Wright}

Primary training was next.  Here, I was re-introduced to the manipulatives that I was reluctant to buy when first teaching math.  After limping along with minimal manipulatives for a year or so, I did load up on them several years ago.  I am so glad I did.  It may seem overkill to have the whole host of manipulatives, but I couldn’t teach Singapore math without them.  Using tangible objects to illustrate arithmetic problems is essential to developing a solid foundation for abstract math later.  Having watched my now 6th grader move through the program, he can manipulate numbers faster, more accurately, and in more ways than I ever could (or can now).  I know this is due to Singapore Math’s emphasis on understanding how numbers work over just knowing how to get a correct answer.  The teachers taught us fun games that use just a deck of cards or dice to help us parents lay that foundation.

Intermediate training taught me to take time in my lessons and go deeper rather than go quicker.  The idea of using rectangles of various dimensions on graph paper to illustrate multiplication and division problems appealed to me.  I used that concept the next day while teaching multiples of three to my daughter in Primary.  How many rectangles could she draw on graph paper to illustrate 3x8?  Much more interesting than writing out multiple number sentences.  We also learned shortcuts to teaching dreaded multiplication facts and Mrs. Knudson and I played a mean round of “The Factor Game for 30.”  I can’t wait to use the games next year.

{photo by Jennifer Wright}

As I moved up to Lower Middle School training, I knew I was reaching the limits of math that I am completely comfortable with.  I was surprised, however, to find that my years of teaching model drawing the Singapore way, made the number stories (AKA word problems) easy for me.  This was remarkable considering that when my daughter started Intermediate five years ago, I struggled with solving these same problems, especially drawing the models.  Math training each year has given me the devices to tackle the problems with ease.  And if you have any difficulty understanding what actually happens when you divide or multiply fractions, ask your Singapore Math teachers.  If you’re like me, you’ll be stunned to finally understand.

The day was getting long but I’d made it to 3:00 and figured I might as well see it through.  Perseverance and grit are SLOCA character traits I’m supposed to be modeling anyhow.  My son will be in pre-Algebra next year and I want to be as prepared as possible.  Mrs. Labine shared teaching methods for adding and subtracting negative numbers.  She also handed out a cheat sheet on helpful and not-so-helpful language to use while teaching.  But the beauty of the day, the absolute highlight for me, came when Mrs. Bartel passed out Algebra manipulatives.  Who knew they could even make Algebra manipulatives.  Isn’t Algebra abstract?  Oh, no, she actually taught us how to multiply, divide, and factor polynomials using rectangular magna-tile looking manipulatives and a grid.  It doesn’t sound exciting, but if you’d been there, if you’d seen it – it was beautiful. Something I never understood was laid out before me in a way that I could see and touch and finally, after 44 years UNDERSTAND!  

{photo by Stephanie Ridley}

All the talk of “Why Before How”, of progressing from concrete, to pictorial, to abstract, all the chatter about number sense, all the Singapore catch phrases amalgamated into one grid and some colored plastic tiles before me, concretely showing the abstract concept that had eluded me for decades.  Maybe the reason I gravitate toward language arts is that I wasn’t taught math the Singapore way.  Maybe I have a math brain after all, I was just never given the tools to access it before.  I’m so grateful to have SLOCA and SLOCA teachers willing and able to train me with the tools that will give my kids the ability to unlock their own math brains.  Mostly, I’m glad we have this team here to remind me how much fun it is to be “always learning.”

What an amazing experience – thank you so much for sharing this, Brigid! We hope all of our parents who came to the training were similarly inspired by the teaching, games, and tools to help their kids (and to access their own math brains too!).

Here are a few photos of students using the algebra tiles in class:

{photos by Paige Bartel}