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Teaching Independence To Improve Math Skills, Plus A Big Secret

Teaching Independence To Improve Math Skills, Plus A Big Secret

What Happens In Class

Imagine 20 still-wiggly 5th graders, or maybe too-cool middle school students, all lined up in their desks for math class. Backpacks everywhere. Enormous three-ring binders spread over their desks. Pencils at the ready.

After going over the previous night's homework the teacher (let's call her Ms. Smith) says something like "Okay, open your notebooks for the next lesson, Chapter 2-4." The kids all flip to that section in their binder and, hopefully, dutifully copy down everything that Ms. Smith writes on the white board. She works her tail off calling on students to participate. It takes about 20 minutes. Finally, after she's shown them at least one example of every type of question in the new lesson, they move on to class work. After that she assigns homework and hopes for the best.

The Secret

Here's the deep dark secret that's so secret your child doesn't even know they're hiding it from you: Most of the time elementary, middle, and even some high school students make absolutely zero connection between the notes they take, the classwork that follows, and the homework they bring home. I know it sounds crazy, but once they flip those notebooks shut it's often like the whole lesson never happened. They look at those first questions like they've never, ever seen it before and only now do they need to figure out how to do this new, scary thing. Connecting their notes to their homework is the first key to improving your child's math skills.

Then, if and when their homework comes home, often it's just the worksheet. That notebook is safely tucked away in their locker because it's so heavy. Or maybe they took notes on a sheet of loose leaf paper now folded up like an accordion at the bottom of their backpack along with the ancient gum wrappers, broken colored pencils, and about 50 other sheets of paper.

If you want an independent math student then teaching them to actually use their notes is absolutely the place to focus first. This is priority #1.

Getting Started

The next time the kiddo sits down at the dining room table to do her homework, ask her where the class notes are. They may be in a binder, folder, or the teacher may have had them do their initial practice right on their class work. Younger students may not even remember taking the notes or doing the practice, but I promise that it happened. I've never met a teacher who would send  a student home with homework until they've practiced it in class.

​If you can't find the notes go ahead and send this simple email to the teacher:

Dear Ms. Smith, I've been trying to help Katie with her math homework, but I'm having trouble finding her class notes or practice. Can you tell me where to look? I'll be able to help her best when I'm using your examples. Thanks! -Ms. Jones

Then tell your little one that they absolutely must bring home everything from math class every day.

Do This

So you're both staring at homework question #1. If the page were a computer screen there would be a cursor blinking at you mockingly.

Say "so which question from your notes looks like this question?" And then help guide them to a similar example in their notes, classwork, or textbook.

Then, "And what did you do on that question?" If you're working with a younger student you may have to prompt them at first. "It looks to me like you...is that right? Go ahead and do that same thing on this one. Great! Let's do the next one."

You watch. Maybe you help a little. Then you guide them through a few more problems before letting them work on their own.

In the classroom, I've often seen students rushing to copy down notes just because I told them they have to. They're illegible, crowded into the margins, and essentially useless. If this is what you see at first then you have a chance to prompt your student to take better notes. Tell them that you're going to "grade" their notes from class the next day, and put a post-it on the next blank page of their notebook to remind them.

If it's really rough at first you probably want to look over their homework when they're finished. If you don't feel like doing that there's a service that can do it for you. Either way, you'll want to make sure these first efforts turn into big successes the next school day.

The next day, do it all over again. Find a daily rhythm. Fuss at them about clearer note taking or classwork and praise them when they start to see how the two are linked together. Make a really big deal out of the improved grades that will start coming home, because the tests and quizzes will have exactly the same types of questions.

Going It Alone

It's okay to let them struggle a little. It probably hurts you more than it does your little one. Let them stare at the problem. Let them look back and forth between the problem and their examples. Let them start it, see that they made a mistake, erase, and then start over. This is totally natural and the process will speed up over time as they gain more confidence doing it on their own.

Tip #1: Look towards the end of their notes and the end of their homework assignment. Often the last questions are the hardest, so direct them to look for questions that look harder or different and then keep looking back at their notes to find similar examples. Basically, if they're stumped they should look at ALL of their notes.

Tip #2: You can also try to get a textbook to use at home. Ask the teacher for an extra "loaner" copy for the year. If one isn't available look for a used version on Amazon or Half.com.

In Summary
  1. Find your child's math notes or classwork.
  2. Show them that the questions they did in class are the same as those on their homework.
  3. Guide them through a few questions.
  4. Let them struggle a little before bailing them out.
  5. Get them to take better, clearer notes.
  6. Repeat daily for two weeks, then as needed to maintain success.
Closing Thoughts

Like everything valuable, this won't be an overnight fix. But by front-loading the work and putting maybe two weeks of hard effort into teaching your child these skills you'll save everyone tons of pain for the rest of the year.

Ms Nies, Math Teacher

Everything the students need to successfully complete each question is a) in their notes, b) on their classwork, and c) in their textbook. No student should ever feel like they don't have any resources. It's our job (teachers and parents) to show them how to use what they already have.

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