* Multiplication.com

Multiplication.com is a classic.  The site is packed with well-organized, brain-friendly content.  And virtually all of it is free. There are five basic sections: student games, four blogs, student assessment and specific fact practice (LEARN), teacher resources for using stories and pictures to learn times tables (TEACH), and resources for teachers to purchase.

Let’s start with the teacher resources.  Videos and step-by-step instructions describe the process of helping kids memorize times tables through a picture/story process.  Alan Walker is a long-time educator (I would call him a “braniac!”) who created a language-based approach for memorizing times tables.  His work was researched in the article: When Multiplication Facts Won’t Stick: Could a Language/Story Approach Work?  I can’t describe this methodology better than the site:

  • The system uses current brain research to maximize memory.  It taps the underlying way the brain remembers.  The brain’s cataloging system has a difficult time categorizing numbers because they are abstract.   Yet pictures, being concrete, are relatively simple for the brain to store and retrieve effectively.
  • Each number is represented by a picture (2 = shoe, 3 = tree, 4 = door). The answer is another picture based on the two pictures in the problem.   It sounds confusing, but it is very easy.
  • Here is a quick example.  Let’s take 3 x 4 = 12.
    • 3 = tree
    • 4 = door
    • 12 = elf
  • When a student sees the problem 3 x 4 they ‘picture’ a tree (3) and a door (4).  The answer will be a picture based on a tree and a door.  The picture they remember for tree and door is elf.  They visualize an elf (12) peeking from behind the door (4) in the tree (3).

Alan Walker also addresses the first question that has already popped into your head: Doesn’t this just confuse kids?  His answer is obviously “no”; in fact, his own success with this program seems to be replicated by parents and teachers who use his method.  I have used similar strategies successfully for helping students memorize “instant” words which cannot be sounded out.

The student games section is fantastic.  There are multiplayer and single player games for addition and subtraction facts as well as multiplication.  My all-time favorite for learning times tables is Sketch’s World.  Sketch's worldIt’s a single player game with seven levels of play.  Students may select their choice of facts to practice; they must complete ten correct responses to start a level.  The game has catchy music, an adorable character, and dreaded erasers who may knock you out of action.  One excellent feature is that the answers for each fact appear in the same place every time.  That does not reduce the challenge of getting correct answers but does provide a visual cue for improved accuracy.  Like all the games, the related curriculum standards are listed, along with clear directions for play.

For students learning their times tables, there’s an online printable assessment.  Working time and errors are recorded.pre-test

Students select the facts they want to learn and then follow the sequence listed below, using Walker’s methodology.  learn a factThe section on blogs is equally robust.  Four writers contribute ideas, resources, and abundant freebies for readers.  Our blogs

Finally, Walker’s materials are available for sale, with inexpensive downloads of student materials as well as additional teaching tips and activities.  I am going to start Walker’s method next week with a student who has not been able to memorize ANY facts in over a year’s time.  I will keep you posted!

* A world without writing

What a fun and insightful teacher this is! Her thought-provoking lesson would inspire the most reluctant writer. Discovery Education is a great resource, if you haven’t tried it.

Ginger In A Snap

On Friday afternoons I work with a group of 5th graders for reading and writing. Today I had a video for them to watch on Discovery Education which has to be my new favorite teaching resource. It has tons of video clips on every topic imaginable for a variety of grade levels.

The clip I had them watch today was about the development of writing in ancient Mesopotamia. Afterwards they were working through a response journal. I had asked them to brainstorm some things the write down every day with the intention of getting them to think about how difficult life would be without a written language.

Being the uniquely minded kids that they are, though, this group started coming up with an elaborate system for getting by without writing. They were discussing different roles they would perform and who would be responsible for remember what information. We ran out…

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* Give me a break

Brain compatible strategiesIn his book, Brain Compatible Strategies, Eric Jensen describes the importance of providing “brain breaks,” where the brain has a chance to consolidate, reflect, and integrate information.  This “brain break” is different from active memory consolidation. That deliberate reflection process should occur towards the end of an instructional session in order to enhance student memory of what they’ve just learned.  Students can talk to a partner, record a mnemonic strategy, draw or write a summary of the main ideas, sing a rhyme, or take a quiz.  The idea is to strengthen student memory for what has been learned, and as noted above, it is a continuation of a lesson.

A “brain break” described by Jensen is a change of scenery or activity, allowing the brain to consolidate information without competition from an influx of new information. Sending kids on a bathroom break, walking down the hall, or moving around the room are all effective types of breaks.  I experimented with this process a few years ago when I was literally teaching in a closet.  It was a dusty, cramped, and stifling space, the very opposite of a brain-friendly physical environment. Since we were not allowed to leave our cramped learning space (don’t ask), we would all stand behind our chairs and complete some physical activity which required cross lateral stretching and movement (such as touching our right hands to our left feet, etc.).  We also had short but vigorous gross motor activities to get our bodies alert (such as marching in place).  During this time, there was no other instructional input; in fact, all the kids were focused on the clock.  I found it interesting that they were not eager for brain breaks (and that’s putting it mildly).  They were counting down the seconds until they could sit again. Yes, we were oxygen-deprived. Without those breaks, my group would lapse into a kind of stupor.  (In retrospect, I should have purchased some oxygen tanks.  Fans would have stirred up dust storms and we had to keep the door almost closed, anyway.)

Because I was teaching in such an undesirable space, I made a number of brain-friendly modifications so that kids were engaged with one another and the material.  One of their favorite activities was being the “teacher” of the group while kids completed some form of game to practice a skill.  The “teacher” would circle our table, giving students feedback on their performance, making positive comments, and providing helpful correction.  At the end of each “teacher’s” session, they gave feedback on their own performance (including both positive aspects and difficulties), after which each member of the group provided affirming feedback (“I liked the way you….”).  Kids learned a lot from each other in these sessions and I learned a lot about them, as well.  Some of the brain-based strategies that were incorporated into this simple activity include: establishing a positive and engaging emotional environment, providing choice and novel activities, supporting intrinsic motivation, improving meta-cognition, and providing challenges that were not too difficult.

In my current instructional sessions, which are in fairly optimal environments, I give kids brain breaks by signalling a break from work with “off-task” chatting (often timed), bathroom breaks, tossing a ball, and other simple distractions.  I find that kids are easily redirected to instruction after a brain break and make steady progress in memory and application of skills. It’s definitely worth the time to provide these breaks.  Teachers benefit from them, too!