Starting a Love of Math at the Elementary Level

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April 11, 2023

I recently co-presented to the Michigan Department of Education Board members on the importance of math equity in Michigan.

My colleague, Karen Sleno, who is an amazing high school math teacher and the 2022-23 Region 5 Regional Teacher of the Year, spoke about the fact that her students often have very negative attitudes toward math in general. She surveyed her students by asking them, “Describe your feelings toward math this year in three words.”

Here are some of their responses: “Just did it,” “Not a fan,” “Stressful and draining,” “Going through motions.” To say the least, this is not the way we want kids to feel about math.

So, I began to think to myself, “What kinds of things should elementary teachers be doing to help kids be successful while walking down their ‘Math Path’?”

What we want to do as teachers is to instill a love of learning and spark interest and curiosity, and here are some of the ways I try to get kids to love learning and, even more importantly, love math.

Build confidence: I allow kids many opportunities to try new things and use different methods and strategies to solve problems.

Use differentiation and many strategies: In my classroom I use the DAILY 3, which consists of three small groups where my students are learning about math in several ways. One is direct instruction with me, another is a small group where they have opportunities to play math games, and lastly, utilize online math programs to learn math skills in another way.

All of these spark the kids’ interests and provide them with opportunities to move, and it allows them to try new things and have fun while they learn.

Give them opportunities to make mistakes: When students are in my room, I want to make sure that they know it is a SAFE ZONE and that it’s OK to try things and make mistakes, because mistakes are the building blocks of learning. Allowing students opportunities to try and fail and learn to persevere are very important skills that will help them well after school ends.

Help kids be curious: I like to plan lessons that allow kids to ask questions and then have opportunities to answer their own questions through the use of different math opportunities. These opportunities allow kids to generate conversations with their peers and spark deeper questioning and connection with the content.

Use hands on materials: I have many math games and manipulatives that students can use during our math lessons so they can construct their own math problems. Additionally, STEM activities are a favorite in my classroom. We do STEM activities throughout the year, and these activities encourage kids to think of different ways to solve problems and help them to see real world applications.

Be positive about math: As I mentioned earlier, students often have negative attitudes toward math as they enter high school, so it is very important to talk about the many reasons that math is important to students in their everyday lives. It’s important for me to speak positively about math and help them see the relevance in their lives by giving them real world examples.
Connect math to real life (PBL): I also think that allowing kids to do PROJECT BASED LEARNING lessons, which enable them to see their part in the world and how learning can help others, are great ways for kids to find new learning opportunities and deepen their understanding. We do PBL, such as our recycling unit, that allows my students to ask questions about what they can do to help their world and what needs they can fill. This helps students build a sense of connection to their communities. At the same time, it challenges them to develop a range of academic skills in order to understand and take action on the issues they encounter in everyday life. And it is FUN, TOO!!

Making learning fun, interesting and relevant deepens students’ connections to the content, provides kids with an opportunity to practice math skills in a different way and allows kids to build on their social skills. It can spark engagement in elementary school and hopefully they can carry that spark into high school and beyond!
About Nanette Hanson: I am a proud teacher with 20-plus years of varied teaching experiences in several teaching positions, from alternative high school through first grade. I work each day to build safe and supportive relationships that help kids grow and flourish while embracing each child’s needs and individuality. As Michigan Teacher of the Year 2022-23, I will strive to continue to build relationships with educational stakeholders to work toward building systems that better offer equitable, inclusive educational opportunities for all students across Michigan.