The cafeteria tables at Shawsville Middle School are round, a good shape for tables that let everybody see each other, talk together and play.
Last week, families and teachers, about 35 people, sat at those tables over pizza, which is round too and sliced in triangles, playing games with numbers, shapes, colored pencils and patterns reaching into the center of the table to help color boxes or count while little brothers and sisters ran around the columns by the gym.
This was Math Night — the first in a series of evening events designed in the systematic effort to engage parents and caregivers in education, part of the integrated, whole-community focus Shawsville is using to improve instruction and raise student achievement as it works steadily to regain full accreditation status.
Telling time, making change, cooking, seeing shapes and patterns in buildings and butterflies. Math is all around us, but while it’s long been known that children who don’t learn to read have a difficult time in school and in life, research also shows that children who begin school with poor math skills also struggle, but in American society, to hear someone say, “I’m no good at reading,” is freighted differently than a casual, “I’m no good at math.”
“A lot of parents have strategies for improving reading skills with their children reading at bedtime, but not for math,” Jennifer Wall, math coach at Shawsville Middle School, said. She’s leading the evening encouraging families to play card games together. Low-tech card games like ‘War’ requires addition and ‘21’ can be jazzed it up with multiplication.
“By 7th grade, you can consider positives and negatives,” she said, excited by the prospect.
She shows a slide of shapes: a square, a diamond, a triangle, a rhomboid and asks, “Which one is different than the others?” A small, blond boy flings up his hand immediately and points out that the triangle has three angles and the others have four.
Someone else says the square is the only one with right angles. Others notice that three of the shapes are colored in and the diamond is empty. Families consult and point and nod. The interesting thing is, everyone is right.
Like reading signs as families drive together, “Talking about shapes and differences and similarities are easy ways families can point out math,” she said.
Wall lets parent know about resources on the school web site and the increasing number of websites and apps for improving math skills. One called ‘Bedtime Math’ that offers math stories for “bedtime, snack time, and bath time” as books and an app — one story is about the toenails of Asian and African elephants.
Wall, like the idea of counting elephant toes at bedtime, is ‘helping families introduce math as a part of their daily routine, as common and beloved as the bedtime story.’
“We wanted to offer a Math Night to give parents and children a chance to talk about math together,” Wall said.
More than that, she and the entire school is working to not just to build a student’s math skills, their confidence, their career prospects, these events are structured change the relationship between the school and the community.
Providing a pizza dinner and inviting the whole family keeps parents and care givers, who may have had an uncomfortable relationship with school, in touch with friendly, accessible teachers. Welcoming little brothers and sisters involves them early in school events.
“The earlier you can start talking about math and being accessible the better. And you don’t have to worry about a baby sitter.”
Talking to parents is important, since Shawsville’s Math Night helping kids, it’s probably helping parents too. Math anxiety in children may stem from math anxiety in parents. Similar to reading, just getting parents and kids interacting and talking about math makes them both more comfortable.
Unavoidably, memorizing multiplication tables and orders of operation are tools of math fluency and they come with familiarity and work.
Asked what advice they’d give to someone struggling with math, sixth graders and best friends Grayson Richardson and Kess Greer are frank.
“Study a little bit harder so you can succeed,” Richardson said.
“Well, I’d tell them to think it through the whole way and look at different angles,” Greer said.
This is Principal Andy Hipple’s first year at Shawsville Middle School. As he visits kids and families at each table, he talks about how Math Night fits into a bigger, sturdier education system.
“There was a disconnect between students and families working together. One of the things we’re trying to do is get families back involved in school,” he said.
This is the first of a series of evening events at Shawsville: January will feature Academic Careers Planning night; February: Science Night. In conjunction with the national ‘Reading Across America’ effort, March presents Reading Night, and April’s History Night will help people work on their ‘personal history tree’.
“School is about learning, fun, and relevance,” Hipple said.