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April is Mathematics Awareness Month

Jon WrayJonathan (Jon) Wray is the secondary mathematics instructional facilitator for the Howard County Public School System (HCPSS), and an author, consultant and national speaker on mathematics teaching and learning. He is immediate past president of the Association of Maryland Mathematics Teacher Educators, past president of the Maryland Council of Teachers of Mathematics, and recently served as an elected member of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics Board of Directors. For Mathematics Awareness Month, Wray shares how families can support their student’s understanding of mathematics, an ever increasingly important skill in today’s world.

As a parent of four children, with one each in elementary, middle, high and graduate school, there are times when I find it hard to keep up with what they are learning in all of their many classes. Occasionally my anxiety level rises when they come to me with questions related to challenging assignments. Will I be able to recall the concepts from my schooling and be able to provide meaningful assistance? Do the assignments include content that has evolved as a result of new developments in teaching, learning, curriculum and/or assessment? Most of all, will they view me as a “failure” if I cannot help them?

The subject of mathematics provides no exception during these anxious moments, as I am often reminded of how the content in and across courses/grade levels is a moving target. Once children develop a new or deepened understanding of a topic, there is always more waiting to be explored. Few would disagree that mathematics is part of everyday life. However, we now know more about the critical impact of mastering mathematics concepts at an early age on a student’s academic success later in life. According to Greg Duncan, a researcher at Northwestern University, “Mastery of early math skills predicts not only future math achievement, it also predicts future reading achievement.” For many, that’s a pretty heavy dose of (new) reality to swallow.

When my children come to me with questions, I’ve learned to avoid doing the mathematics for them (reflecting on the fact that watching me ride a bike did very little for helping them learn to ride on their own). Instead I pose the following questions (which I find helps them work productively through their struggles and avoid major frustrations): What do you already know about this problem? Can you show me the method(s) you have used (so far) to complete the problem? What have you discovered? How did you find that out? Have you found another way that could be done? Does your answer make sense to you–why or why not? What might be your next step? The thinking revealed through these conversations often point my children in a productive direction and limit the need for me to “take over” or reteach.

HCPSS firmly believes that families are a critical centerpiece for student success in mathematics, as parents and guardians are children’s first and most important teachers. That’s why about two years ago, at three HCPSS community workshops, we asked parents/guardians about their needs related to supporting their own children with mathematics learning. Their response was clear and focused on the need to help families:

  • gain a better understanding of their child’s math program;
  • refresh or build a deeper understanding of math concepts, skills and practices; and
  • provide additional support and practice opportunities for students, including free online homework help, as needed, throughout the school year.

Within a few months, the school system released the online Family Math Support Center (FMSC). The FMSC provides students and their families with details related to mathematics course content, background information on “unfamiliar” concepts and practices, free homework help in partnership with the Howard County Library System, targeted practice opportunities, the latest information related to testing and understanding student results, videos about what students should know and be able to do in each K-12 mathematics course, and much more. In the short time since its establishment, the FMSC has received well over 500,000 visits.

A recent addition to the HCPSS FMSC is a series of short videos that describe recent shifts in mathematics instruction, as well as ways to support children with mathematics homework.

As Mathematics Awareness Month is observed in April, we pause to recognize the need for all students to study mathematics, as society has become increasingly dependent on the application of mathematical reasoning, problem solving, communication, connections and the strategic use of different representations (e.g., numbers, words, pictures, objects, tables, graphs, and other tools and technology). As a community, it is critical that we view mathematics in a positive light, and as an important discipline for our students to learn and use on a daily basis. When our children come to us with questions related to their struggles in mathematics, consider posing some of the above questions to help them work productively through problems while helping develop their problem solving, reasoning and communication skills.

I hope you find these resources helpful and invite you to contact me with any suggestions for enhancing the Family Math Support Center. Happy Mathematics Awareness Month!

Addressing Fake News

Mark StoutMark J. Stout serves as coordinator of Advanced Placement & Secondary Social Studies for the Howard County Public School System (HCPSS). He holds a Ph.D. and M.Ed. in Curriculum & Instruction from the University of Maryland, College Park. He began his career as a middle school social studies teacher, and has worked as a resource teacher for social studies and as a facilitator for professional development. Here Stout blogs about the social studies teacher’s role in empowering students with strategic reading skills to determine credibility.  

“Some 82% of middle-schoolers couldn’t distinguish between an ad labeled ‘sponsored content’ and a real news story on a website, according to a Stanford University study of 7,804 students from middle school through college.”
— The Wall Street Journal, 2017

In this era of the 24-hour news cycle and the spread of information through social media, students are inundated with data. As evidenced by the quote from the Stanford study, many have difficulty determining which news sources are reliable. I am often asked to comment on how teachers help their students discern between fact and opinion when so much information is available. In this new era of “fake news” that has attracted the attention of so many Americans, social studies teachers work very purposefully to help students understand how to determine reliability and bias.

Our nation is built upon the notion that citizens should have opportunities for the free exchange of ideas. This was important to the framers of our Constitution, who considered a free press essential to our democracy. In an age where individuals consume media increasingly linked to their interests, it becomes easy to accept what they read as the truth. Whether it is the news programs they watch, the forwarded links from family and friends, or their social media feeds, we need to help our students dissect fact from opinion by questioning everything they hear, see or read.

Howard County social studies teachers are trained to teach students how to read text critically through historical reading and thinking skills. Instructional methods focus on developing deep historical understanding through the interpretation and analysis of the past using complex primary and secondary source documents. HCPSS curriculum is informed by two Teaching American History Grant Programs with the Center for History Education at University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), which built on work from the Stanford History Education Group to promote historical thinking.

The first step in this process involves what historians term “sourcing” the documents. Here, students ask questions such as: Who wrote this? When was this written? Why was it written? What type of source might this be (journal entry, letter, legal document, news article, etc.)? What is the author’s point of view? Is this source reliable? Does the author have anything to gain or lose?

Next, students conduct what is termed “close” or “critical” reading. In this stage, students determine what claims the author is making, if there is substantial evidence to support these claims and if the author is attempting to influence the reader through the use of language. After determining the authenticity of the sources, students then begin to look for other pieces of evidence to support the author’s claims. They can ask: Are there conflicting versions of the story? Which versions are more believable and why? By seeking multiple sources, students can make more reasoned decisions about what explanation is plausible.

In the final stage of the historical reading process, students learn to establish the historical context of the sources. This is perhaps the most challenging, as they need to see the story or event through the eyes of the people who lived in that time period. They can ask: What else was going on when this was written that might have influenced the author? What was different back then, and what was the same? Understanding context is critical to evaluating any account, whether in the past or the present.

Determining credibility is an acquired skill that can be applied through these processes of historical reading and thinking. Integrating the skills of reading like historians is now an expectation across social studies courses in HCPSS. It is imperative that students in our history and social studies classrooms understand these skills, so they can fulfill their roles as informed citizens.