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Marcellus students get physical with math

Nov. 30, 2016 -- When most of us think of math, we see columns of numbers on a chalkboard, formulas on a sheet of paper and procedures to be followed. But for some elementary students at Marcellus, math is all about colorful objects – plastic blocks, construction paper shapes, etc. –  to manipulate.

This year, Marcellus Central School District switched to a new math curriculum, “Investigations into Numbers, Data and Space,” in grades K, 1, 3 and 4.

We recently sat down with Katherine Cook, the district’s K-12 STEM Coordinator, to find out what prompted the change and how the transition has been going.

Marcellus decided to move to Investigations because the district wanted something that focused more heavily on building a conceptual understanding of math, as opposed to a procedural one. “Investigations” includes more hands-on, minds-on activities and games.

“Research tells us that learning happens in the context of a relationship,” Ms. Cook said. “Whether that’s a relationship between teacher and student or student and student.  So we’re making the move toward students taking more ownership over their own learning, which gives them a deeper understanding than simply performing a task.”

(Click here to see the Power Point presentation Ms. Cook showed during the fourth-grade curriculum night in September.)

So what does that mean in practical terms? Less paper and more “manipulatives” – or objects that students can physically handle during classroom lessons.

For example, in teacher Maria Healy’s third-grade classroom, students this fall worked with tiles to talk about such concepts as area and multiplication. Kindergartners, meanwhile, worked with blocks of different colors, shapes and sizes to learn about sorting and patterns. Then there are connecting cubes to help student conceptualize subtraction and addition.

“It helps them go from the concrete to the abstract more readily,” Ms. Cook said.

For teachers, the professional development involved over the summer was time- and labor-intensive, but – according to early reports so far – clearly worth it. Many teachers have been texting Cook classroom pictures.

“I’ve heard some really positive things so far,” she said. “They’re excited and want to show me what’s happening with their classes. It’s more engaging for students and more fun for the teachers. There’s more discussion, and teachers are able to see what their students are thinking.”

Parents might notice less homework. That’s to be expected, Ms. Cook said.

Investigations uses a lot less paper. There might not even be homework every night. Parents will definitely see a decrease in the number of pieces of paper coming home.

Cook encourages parents concerned about the drop-off in homework to fill the gap by reinforcing the basics with their children themselves. Use an analog clock to review numbers and time, for example, or empty out a piggy bank to help them practice counting coins.

“There are skills that all parents can support their children with,” Ms. Cook said.
Materials for grades 2 and 5 were not available from the publisher, Pearson, in time for last summer’s staff development. Those grades will make the switch in September 2017.


Above: Students in Maria Healy's third-grade class play a game to learn about factor pairs. 


Above left: Students in Maureen Jennis' fourth-grade class study their array posters to discover the ideas of prime and composite. 
Above right: Maria Healy's class uses tiles to explore area and multiplication. 

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