Focus on Math

Helping children become mathematicians!

Calgary City Teachers’ Convention: PS February 10, 2016

It is my pleasure to present this session “Power Up Your Problem Solving” to the participants of this session.

Regular problem solving is a powerful way to help students develop conceptual understanding in the various strands of mathematics. Since there is a tradition in North America of “teaching by telling” (the “here’s-how-to-do-it-go-practice-50-of-these” method), it may take many weeks to develop a culture of deeper thinking in a classroom. Students need a variety of thinking tools and strategies to work with, as well as skills and practice in talking about math problems, but the time it takes to help students gain these needed things is time well spent. The payoff is huge!

I hope many of you will be encouraged to begin building a regular problem solving program with your students. It works at every grade level!

All the here are the downloads for the problem solving session:

I would love to hear from you how it goes in your classrooms!

Mathematically yours,



GAD Workshop, Surrey, BC October 23, 2015

learning to speak math picThanks to the teaching staff of GAD Elementary in Surrey, BC, for their warm welcome and heartfelt participation as we delved into problem solving, math tools and strategies, and math processes (especially communication). Changing our teaching practice is not an easy feat, but if we commit to some small changes, practice them regularly, add more changes, practice those regularly, and keep on going in that manner, we can end up making a significant and lasting change that will benefit students greatly.

Remember, “math talk” does not just happen. We have to plan ways to incorporate it into each math lesson. It is a good idea to create math partners so students are responsible to talk to someone about their math thinking. Modeling (letting students hear YOU talk through a demonstration problem) is always a good idea. Responding to students with proper math language/vocabulary (when they have not used such) is helpful. Posting “sentence stems” is a great way to give them an easier start in speaking math. Additionally, try creating a “math words” chart with the students that they can use as an on-going reference in both their speaking and writing (click here to see an example of a “math words” chart.)

As promised, I am adding links from this post to the handouts from today’s session (see bottom of the post) and some that we just talked about.

I would LOVE to hear from any of the GAD staff of how things go in your math lessons in the next weeks. You all listed something that you could begin to do right away in your classrooms, and I hope you will share what you are doing and the effect it is having on the students.

Remember, understanding “lives” in the processes! Reflect on your teaching regularly to see if you are embedding those processes into math classes. It will make a big difference in students’ understanding if they are immersed in the processes!

Mathematically yours,



Download materials here:

100 dot array (teacher size)

100 dot arrays 4 per page

100 dot arrays 6 per page

100 dot arrays 12 per page

break apart number sheet – 2’s

break apart number sheet – 3’s

problem solving assessment rubric

10 frames (teacher size)

10 frames (student size)

10 frames blank mini’s


Simple Definitions Too Simple? August 10, 2015


Math definitions matter! There are many words we use in mathematics that have one meaning in that discipline and another in ordinary life. Take for instance the word “difference”. In regular conversation, if I ask you to find the difference between two things you are looking for some way in which the items are not the same. However, in mathematics, finding the “difference” specifically refers to finding the answer to a subtraction problem.

But we as teachers might be sending some confusing messages to students, sometimes even when we think we are right on track with our definitions. One example of this is the seemingly easy-to-define term “even”. How would you explain to a young child what an even number is?

There are two popular ways this property of even is explained to primary students: First, many teachers suggest that we can do an “even check by examining whether a particular number of items can be split into two equal groups. Armed with this definition, children should see that six is even since there can be two groups of three, but five is not even because there are two groups of two and one left over.

Alternately, teachers often suggest that students look at the value of the one’s place digit of the number in question. If there is a 2, 4, 6, 8, or 0 in one’s place, then a number is even. Using this method children should conclude that 74 is even since there is a 4 in one’s place, but 73 is not since there is a 3 in one’s place.

The problem is that both of these simple definitions are not fully correct. There are exceptions to them that, in fact, that are incorrect.

Concerning the “two equal groups” definition, young children figure out quickly that when sharing 5 cookies between two friends, each can have 2 ½ cookies. There are two equal groups, but the number 5 is still an odd number. What important detail have we failed to communicate here?

Concerning the “one’s place digit of 2, 4, 6, 8, or 0” definition, a student can declare that 74.3 is even since it fulfills the definition stated. Again, what important detail have we failed to communicate here?

Some might argue that these exceptions above the student; that we need not muddy the waters, so to speak, by giving extraneous information that we think is above our students’ heads. I disagree. I feel that if we just mention the restrictions as we talk about the definition, that it becomes part of the language the students are used to. We often underestimate how much students can understand, and we “dumb down” the language as a result. I would love to challenge your thinking along that line. In the case of primary children in particular, they love to learn what I refer to as “27-syllable” dinosaur names, yet we are afraid of using good math language with them!

I hope you will stop and think about the simple definitions you are using with your students and reflect on whether or not there are some hidden exceptions that need to be teased out and exposed.

Mathematically yours,



10 New Year’s Resolutions for the Math Classroom December 31, 2014

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1. praise effort, not correct answers
2. make sure my students know their intelligence is not fixed: hard work pays off
3. make my classroom a safe place for students to take risks
4. encourage students to take risks
5. give my students rich problems that require they engage in problem solving
6. build a class repertoire of strategies
7. have “thinking tools” handy
8. give regular attention to basic facts (for students who do not know them)
9. give students lots of opportunity to talk to each other when solving problems
10. support math vocabulary learning with a word wall chart

Mathematically yours,



Welcome to SUCCESS! July 31, 2014

Screen Shot 2014-07-31 at 12.36.30 PMAs I write this the summer is half over — at least for students and teachers in BC, Canada. Schools are generally out for July and August, and then begin after Labour Day in September. I know in other places school will resume in mid- or late-August.

Whenever it begins for you, my question is this: what tone do you set in those first days/weeks of school? What is the most important message that you relay to your students?

For me it was simply this: WELCOME TO SUCCESS!  I had cut the letters for that saying out of construction paper 12 inches high (one letter for each page) and I stapled the message above the chalk board at the front of the classroom.

I talked about student success many times each day for the first few weeks. I basically inundated the students with the message that they would succeed in my classroom because I would not let them fail. I would do whatever it takes to work with them to be successful throughout the year. Failure was NOT an option — this was a classroom of successful students! I even went so far as to tell them that it was their lucky year getting  me for a teacher! Oh, there would be work involved along with lots of learning, talking, thinking, wondering, solving, thinking, testing, proving, thinking, recording, demonstrating, thinking… But we would be working together as a class and each and every student would be successful.

I was especially vocal about success in mathematics. I was teaching grade 6/7 in the early years of my “WELCOME TO SUCCESS” campaign, and it was clearly evident that a large proportion of the class came to me telling me they did not like math and that they were not good at it. I knew the real story was that they did not UNDERSTAND the math and they were not good at remembering all the rules. My plan was to work continually with the concepts in the mathematics knowing that once they understood they would get better and be more confident. My promise was to help them be successful even in an area of study they thought they could not be successful in.

The wonderful things was, of course, that my statement of declaration proved true year after year. All of the students WERE successful! They believed me when I declared it (I guess I said it and they read it so many times that they could not help but believe it!) and ultimately their personal belief regarding their personal success was a turning point for them.

I will ask my question again: what tone do you set in those first days/weeks of school? What is the most important message that you relay to your students?

Mathematically yours,


Breaking Apart Numbers: Practice Sheets May 27, 2014

Screen shot 2014-05-27 at 10.57.33 AMI have mentioned before about the importance of breaking numbers apart, of having students understand that every number can be broken into smaller numbers. I have included this practice on all of the Number of the Day sheets (level l, level ll, level lll) that I have posted, but it warrants adding these other sheets that focus on this Whole-Part-Part number relationship.

Regularly practicing this skill can change students’ thinking. They will be much more likely, in any given situation involving numbers, to look for alternative ways of thinking if they have spent time pulling numbers apart in many ways.

Remember, the students are not starting with a new number in every circle. Rather they are using one particular number for a line or for the whole page! In different situations it may be more beneficial to break a number apart in one way than it is in another way.

Mathematically yours,


download the breaking into two parts sheet here

download the breaking into three parts sheet here

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Seeing Dots: NCTM 2014 New Orleans Presentation April 11, 2014

Screen shot 100 dot arrayI am excited to be here in New Orleans at the 2014 NCTM conference. Yesterday was a great day of sessions for me, and I am delighted to be presenting a session in just a couple of hours! “Seeing Dots: Using Arrays to Add, Subtract, Multiply and Divide” will focus on all the different ways the 100 dot array can be used to help students visualize and represent numbers — something which leads to a deeper understanding of numbers.

I am posting the handout from the workshop as well as links to 100 dot arrays is the different sizes.

I hope you try using the 100 dot array in your elementary classroom!

Download the conference handout here.

Download a 100 dot large array here.

Download 4 arrays on a page here.

Download 6 arrays on a page here.

Download 12 arrays on a page here.

Mathematically yours,