* My dear Isaac

Dear Isaac is my nephew with an unidentified auditory processing disorder and dyscalculia, all mixed with a heavy dose of emotional distress.  He’s a bright, creative youngster with strengths in science and art.  But as a third grader, he still can’t add or subtract single digit numbers without his fingers.  If we hadn’t used Alan Walker’s multiplication methodology, Isaac wouldn’t have learned any multiplication facts.  After his initial refusal to engage with the Walker approach to memorization, Isaac cut his losses and became proud of his new knowledge.

After my initial assessment, I estimated that it would take six months to correct fundamental math reasoning errors.  That was an accurate estimate.  Isaac has made solid progress in solving problems.  You would be so proud if you could see him working on multiple-step word problems!

Sadly, dear Isaac is now burned to a crisp at school and when it’s time for homework.  He doesn’t act out at school but his teacher reports that he is frequently inattentive and withdrawn.  The school year has been too long and taxing.  Isaac feels stupid, is depressed, and his teacher flat out refuses to lessen the homework load.  Oh dear!

A predictable conundrum for him (and me!) is dealing with his errors.  He has made too many and now wants to be error-free for life.  If only!  He is reluctant to accept alternative methods of calculation when he feels especially low.  We had a difficult session this past week when he refused to write multiple digit addition problems vertically instead of horizontally.

After staring at his horizontally-written problem, Isaac screamed, “I can’t do this!   I thought you were going to help!”

“Write it vertically, Isaac.”

“I’m going to do it MY way!”  

“Go ahead.”  [I walk across the room because I know he’s going to implode if I stay close.  Or I might just bite my hand off.]

Repeat above scenario 3 times.

Finally, amidst tears and growls, Isaac rewrites the problem vertically and gets so much praise from me that we are back on track.  I remain at his side as his sense of humor returns and he completes all the dreaded homework in record time.

Here’s the adorable Isaac, taking aim at homework with a tripod?

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* Math Playground

If you haven’t yet visited Math Playground, you are in for a treat!  Designed by Colleen King for her classroom in 2002 and continuing to grow, Math Playground has now over 450 games and activities.  The site is organized by grade level (1-6+), math topics, and includes excellent math videos and an entire page of games and videos aligned to Common Core standards.

Math Playground provides ample practice on just about any skill you can name, with games that are not always timed, which can be a helpful feature for struggling students.  About 130 games are also available as apps from iTunes.  The site is certified kidSafe, so ads are benign.  Math Playground also donates to Donors Choose, a terrific site I’ve used in the past.

One of my favorite features of Math Playground is the accessibility of 28 interactive math manipulatives, such as “thinking blocks” for solving word problems on multiple topics.  Teachers, parents, and students can explore fraction bars, geoboards, fraction scales, probability spinners, tangrams, function machines, simple programming, and much more.  These manipulatives are a bit more difficult to find, so bookmark the link!

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Math Playground has many logic games and a cool section on the interaction between math and art.  “Equation Creations,” for instance, may appeal to students who are into video games and graphic designs.  For movie creation, there are 3 fun “sets”: a picnic site, rock band, and alien adventure.  If you’re a parent who needs a boost for supporting homework assignments, this site is also for you.  Finally, there are reading, spelling, and geography games, plus just-for-fun activities.

Math Playground is a 5-star site!


* Mathematics discourse

Mathematics discoursequotation marks 2

That’s another name for providing students adequate time to discuss and reason in math instruction.  The current issue of Teaching Children Mathematics describes Tracy Shannon’s delightful classroom where math instruction is engaging, hands on, and allows students time to talk and solve interesting problems.  The authors, Gina Gresham and Tracy Shannon, provide a useful framework for other teachers who want their students to improve achievement and motivation.  Is it reasonable to think this can be accomplished, given all the time and testing pressures faced by classroom teachers?  YES!

Here is Shannon’s sample schedule of a 75 minute block of math instructional time:

  • 15 minutes: whole-group, teacher-led instruction
  • 10-12 minutes: Station 1- Teacher-led activity with small groups
  • 10-12 minutes: Station 2- Hands-on game activity with small groups
  • 10-12 minutes: Station 3- Computer activity with small groups
  • 15-20 minutes: Whole-group wrap-up lesson and exit slip

It’s obvious that this approach requires careful planning and access to digital resources, in addition to developing a community of students who support and encourage one another.  The authors also discuss the challenges of mathematics discourse, including how much struggle to allow students as they solve problems.  Teaching with mathematics discourse requires a skillful teacher and most likely, a solid team of professionals.

* What is homework?

To my nephew, Isaac, homework is “tor-tradition,” meaning torture + tradition.  See?  He has some math sense and lots of common sense.  Poor Isaac.  As third grade has shifted into hypermode to prepare for the end of grade tests, he has been left dangling. There’s not enough time for remediation after school, not with the tor-traditional piles of homework.  Fortunately, he has a flexible teacher who is now willing to let him move through the multiplication.com system of learning his times tables.  After months of trying more traditional (and yes, torturous approaches), I switched to Alan Walker‘s language- and association-based approach.  It has paid off bigtime for Isaac, providing him with a dose of much-needed confidence.  But is it too little and too late?


Isaac would benefit from a formal educational and psychological evaluation.  He appears to have serious weaknesses in auditory processing skills, along with attention, working memory, and long term memory issues.  His success in reading fluency camouflages many of his weaknesses.  Sometimes both teachers, parents, and kids think everything is fine if you can read above grade level.  Ouch.  Try giving Isaac multistep directions and watch the confusion.  And like many twice exceptional kids, Isaac’s mental energy has been fried to a crisp after half a day of school.  His teachers report that he spends his afternoons in silence, never responding and apparently inattentive.  At home, he screams and bangs his head when it’s time for homework.  Torture indeed.

I don’t think it’s too late for this sweet kiddo.  He is eager to learn, responds well to instruction in incremental steps, and has enough curiosity for an entire classroom.  And he can do a perfect Patrick or Spongebob imitation.  Isaac can go far, especially if a certain tortuous traditions can be axed.

* Backing up, moving forward in math

Backing Up and Moving Forward” is an insightful article in this month’s Teaching Children Mathematics.  The premise of the article is that carefully worded math problems can assist teachers in first assessing student performance and then determining the next steps: do students move forward or back up?  The authors, Barlow et al., share their experiences with 5th graders’ understanding of dividing fractions and how teachers determined what those next steps should be.

In the process of designing their lessons, the authors share some features of effective word problems.  In this experiment, the word problem was fashioned around “Chef Frederick” as he made dessert.  Do students have familiarity with this kind of cooking experience?  Does the problem support varied response styles, such as visual, manipulative, or written?  measuring-cups

The authors also established a 4 point scale of student performance, from exceeding expectations to lacking fundamental understanding.  From my perspective as a special educator, I can predict that many of my kiddos would fall in the lower end of the proficiency scale.  Asking students to demonstrate their understanding visually is an effective indicator of performance.  Both teachers and students can better see the reasoning process and where it might have broken down.  In one example, a student did not know how to represent a simple fraction; obviously, dividing fractions was introduced before that student had sufficient prior learning.

I’d love to see a follow-up article on how classroom teachers could address major gaps in mathematical understanding.   It takes time to replace misconceptions.  It takes willingness on both the student’s and teacher’s part to tackle the process.  What happens to the struggling learners while the remaining kids move forward?  It is encouraging that these educators recognize the need to fill in those gaps, instead of simply pushing forward.  If this assessment and repair process occurred routinely at all grade levels, perhaps we wouldn’t see as many kids who are partially memorizing algorithms and procedures without true understanding.


* Spotlight on Mathgeek Mama

Mathgeek Mama is a cool blog with seriously good math resources, advice, and freebies.  I stumbled across this site recently and have been downloading some cool resources ever since.  Bethany is the math geek behind this terrific site, loaded with resources, helpful links, and insights for struggling students.  She’s a former public school math teacher who now homeschools her four girls.

Why do I love Mathgeek Mama so much?  Bethany really gets it.  She understands why some kids struggle with math.  She tackles common misunderstandings with multisensory and appealing materials.  And much of it is FREE.  Here’s a good example.  I am tutoring my nephew in math; Isaac partially understands place value and regrouping, but still needs that aha moment.  Bethany has created a clever and attractive shopping game where the currency is pattern blocks.  Without resorting to piecemeal algorithms in his head, Isaac can play this game and truly understand why he must “regroup,” even if we don’t call it that.  Anxiety is reduced and understanding is increased.  Perfect!


Check out Bethany’s site for freebies and much more.  Her products are reasonably priced and worth the investment (and far more attractive than anything I could create).

* Tiny Tap’s terrific online courses

Tiny Tap takes online learning to a new level with curated Tiny Tap Courses!  Now teachers and parents can combine lessons to create seamless learning units!  Competency can be determined by requiring students to reach a certain score before advancing to the next lesson or continuous practice is available without requiring a minimum score.  Students also earn certificates as they complete courses.  Here’s a look at how phonics instruction can be personalized by grouping skills for particular students.  With over 80 thousand available lessons, comprehensive instruction is a tap away!

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Tiny Tap’s lessons and units are available in 30 languages and offer personalized instruction on a wide range of topics.  In case you’d forgotten, Tiny Tap offers parents and teachers insights on individual and class performance while providing differentiated learning experiences for students.  Tiny Tap is a terrific resource for special needs students with a wide range of needs.

If all that isn’t enough, what about making money while you individualize instruction?  Here’s the Tiny Tap teacher-driven economy.  You gotta love it!


I could easily imagine a social skills unit for my dear Christopher.  I think it’s time for me to start tapping!


* School-wide bulletin boards

A recent “Coaches’ Corner” feature of Teaching Children Mathematics encourages the use of bulletin boards as teaching tools.  Robyn Silbey shares a cool example for grades K-5 by using a single prompt (What is equal to 10?) divided into columns for all classes to respond.  This tool seems appropriate for expanding algebraic instruction and thinking to all elementary grades, so here’s my proposed bulletin board.  Teachers could rotate through small group displays so that all kids get “on the wall” in one year.

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* Matific

Matific is terrific!  What a fabulous website for teachers and parents!  I am only using a free trial right now, but here’s what I will enjoy for the next 30 days:

Awesome math games (called “episodes”) which can be used to supplement school/ tutoring math lessons, added as homework, or selected by the student for independent play (if teacher/parent allow).   I found myself happily playing a number of these episodes.

Excellent coordination with your math instruction.  Math activities (games and hundreds of worksheets) can be assigned which correlate to your school’s math textbook, Common Core, and/or student needs. Activities may also be assigned by grade level or topic.

An enormous number of activities are available!  They are designed for kindergarten through 6th grade.  What about quality?  These episodes require mathematical reasoning, provide positive feedback, and make excellent use of current technology for computers and tablets with touch screens.  They go far beyond the typical “pop the correct answer” online game.  Without pesky time limits, special needs kids with processing issues will enjoy the process.  I think all kids will enjoy both the thoughtfulness and humor in these games.  And who knew that worksheets could be engaging?  Try them at Matific and see!

Solid resources for teachers.   You’ll find lesson plans, videos, tutorials, recorded webinars, white papers and more.  The teacher guides for episodes are extremely well done.  There’s a description of the required task, requisite skills (“behind the scene”), suggestions for demonstrating the episode to individuals or the whole class, VERY thoughtful questions for improving student understanding and promoting further exploration, and then more teacher-led follow up activities.

Strong student analytics.  Get reports on classroom overview; individual student achievement; and student scores cumulatively, by topic, and by assignment.  They’re quite simple to access- no hunting required.

Excellent pedagogy.   Matific is a seriously well-designed site and takes supplemental math instruction to a whole new level.  Students are encouraged to reason and enjoy math.  I especially value the inclusion of algebraic thinking as a math topic.  The folks behind Matific are solid mathematicians and computer whizzes.

And after my 30 day free trial?  Seriously reasonable cost for an upgraded membership.  I am surprised at the low cost of Matific and hope it stays that way!   Great value for an amazing website!

I have snipped a copy of The Matific Mission and would say their mission is a success!

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My rating: 5 out of 5 stars  starstarstarstarstar




* Online calculator

Ah, thank you, online-calculator.com for providing a full screen calculator without an app.  This is a useful tool for students working with eye gaze technology.  I wish I could adjust the colors and also view the complete operation above the keypad, but I’ll take what I can get.  Image online calculator