Everyday math

. June 26, 2013.

Welcome to September.  I hope everyone had a great August.  September is a month of firsts.  Of course, we celebrate Labor Day like we do every year.  (This the day when we honor hard work by taking the day off.)  However, many new events take place this month, such as the dedication of Michigan Stadium’s new press box and premium seating.  If the team is bad again, those of you with premium seats can at least cover your eyes while sitting in cushioned chair-backed seats with drink holders.  (For the record:  we won’t be bad again because we rule!  But don’t quote me on that.)

What other firsts are there in September?  September is the beginning of school.  Also, in Ann Arbor and many other school districts, parents will be learning about Everyday Math for the first time.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with this type of math, it is the University of Chicago’s method of teaching mathematics.  For those of you who do know Everyday Math, don’t throw this paper out just yet.  Please.  I have more to say. 

My first introduction to this curriculum was as a parent, trying to figure out what they were asking my daughter to do.  Many of the Everyday Math concepts were bizarre to me—things like “spiraling.”  This is the system of teaching the students a math concept in one part of the year, then revisiting it during other times of the year.  In other words, the lesson spirals back around to study it again, kind of like a recurring case of lice.  What my wife and I couldn’t figure out, though, was why the teachers taught the lessons for such a short period of time—not really long enough for the kids to grasp them.  It seemed that our daughter wasn’t gaining any confidence in mastering the subject of math.

In subsequent years, my wife and I were scratching our heads as to why on earth our children had to learn the Lattice Method of multiplication rather than the good ol’ uncomplicated way we learned.  (This is one of many algorithms Everyday Math teaches students to solve problems, but please don’t ask me to explain Lattice Method.  My brain will fry.) 

There’s actually much more to Everyday Math, though, than ornate ways of making products of numbers.  Nonetheless, this program frightens and confuses many parents.  Here’s the weird part:  now that I’m in Michigan’s School of Education, I have learned that Everyday Math has some merit.  I don’t hate it like I used to.  Have I gone to the dark side?  No, not really.  I just get what they’re trying to do. 

My professors tell me that it actually is a solid mathematics curriculum based on extensive research.  The eggheads at the University of Chicago did their homework and built the program around the ways in which children learn.  All of that spiraling is beneficial in reinforcing the various lessons.  It also helps students who have been absent.  They will at least get to see the material again later.  In addition, I am told that the initial lessons are short and purposely not designed for the children to understand the concepts completely at first.  Over time, they theoretically learn everything better due to the different ways in which the curriculum explains the material.  I’m not quite sure how this affects their confidence, but I’ll keep you posted.

Additionally, algorithms such as the Lattice Method of multiplication or Partial Products are strategies that speak to many students.  Children are sense makers, and sometimes, alternative methods are necessary for a child to grasp a concept.  The goal, however, is eventually to get the child to move to the traditional methods.
Many of you parents still may not be convinced that Everyday Math is worthwhile.  I don’t blame you—it can feel vastly different than the ways we learned way back when.  I don’t know enough about this curriculum yet to say that it’s the greatest thing since Silly Bandz, but I do have a recommendation:  if your school has a night when they explain Everyday Math (which they should), please attend.  It’ll make so much more sense.  If not, make an appointment to see your child’s teacher.  I have even heard rumors that there is a kit you can buy through your school to go with the program.

After dealing with Everyday Math with my children for nine years, I never thought I would start to have a positive view of what can seem like a very complicated math curriculum.  If you have questions or take exception to what I said, please contact me and I’ll bore your socks off with a ninety-minute dissertation on the pros and cons of using the Lattice Method to solve 48 x 35.

Jim Keen is a free-lance writer and life-long Ann Arborite.  He lives in town with his wife, Bonnie, and daughters, Gabbi (14) and Molly (10).  He is the author of Inside Intermarriage:  A Christian Partner’s Perspective on Raising a Jewish Family (URJ Press).  He can be reached at mya2@annarborfamily.com