SchoolFamily Voices

Join our bloggers as they share their experiences on the challenges and joys of helping children succeed in school.

Perseverance, Not "Math Brain," Determines Success in Math

There is exciting new research about how we learn math. Scientists at Stanford University now believe there is no such thing as having a “math brain.” In other words, their research suggests that everyone can learn math! This is contrary to common belief and supports my efforts through the years to encourage kids to say, “I’m not good at math—yet!” (instead of just stating they cannot learn math). This research suggests some interesting things about how we learn.

First of all, we learn math by doing it. The most interesting thing, though, is how it happens. When we are working on a math problem and make a mistake, synapses in the brain fire even if we are not aware that we made a mistake. Then, when we discover the mistake and correct it, the synapses fire again. The new pathways created when the synapses fire are learning. So, it is by doing math and making mistakes that we learn. Encourage your child to keep trying to figure out his math homework and let him know that mistakes are not only OK, they are also necessary!

Second, the world’s best mathematicians do math slowly. Your child should realize that it is OK to spend time thinking about the problems she is working on. She should not expect to finish her work quickly. Encourage her to slow down and to think about how she is working her math problems. Ask her if there might be another way to do the same problem. Talk about math with her. Ask her to explain to you how she is doing the problems so you will also know how to do them.

Finally, failure (making lots of mistakes) is necessary when learning math. Your child needs to have the mindset that working hard is what makes the difference in math, not necessarily getting every problem correct. He should learn to persevere; he should talk with other students about how they did the problems and not give up quickly. He should refer to his textbook and notes.  After all that effort, if he still cannot do the work, he needs to be encouraged to seek his teacher’s help. Even so, he should be thinking, “If I keep trying, I will eventually figure out how to do this.” It is important that he believes in himself when learning math.

Dr. Jo Boaler and her students at Stanford have produced an online course for students that will help them become good math learners. Check out this free course at the YouCubed website. Each lesson takes only about 15 minutes to complete, and it is well worth the effort. I recommend that parents take the course with their children. Remember, someone doesn’t have to be a “math person” to learn math. We can all be good math learners if we take our time, believe in ourselves, persevere, and make lots of mistakes along the way.

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Graphing for Reading and Math Fun

Graphing is a great way for a young child to visually see math and understand the concepts of more or less and addition and subtraction in mathematics. Graphs can also be used in reading to help a child compare and contrast elements of a story. There are simple bar graphs, line graphs, pie charts, and even Venn diagrams to help children understand new concepts in both reading and math.

Here are three ways to make graphing fun:

  • Use an old shower curtain or blanket as a large graph mat. Place it flat on the floor. Let your child organize objects to graph, such as stuffed animals, toy cars, or favorite books. If she decides to graph her stuffed animals she can organize by size, color, type of animal, etc. She might start at the bottom of the blanket and put all her yellow cats in a column, then her black cats in the next column, her orange cats next, and so on. Or she might choose to graph the cats by size. Ask “How many cats are yellow?” “Is that more or less than your black cats?” She is sorting and comparing results with this activity, as well as visually reading a graph.
  • Use same size, different-colored Legos or blocks to make a standing bar graph. Let your child ask family and friends their favorite kind of cookie, for example. Help him write responses. Let him assign a different colored Lego for different cookies—for example, red for chocolate chip, blue for peanut butter, etc. Stack up the Legos according to choices recorded. Help him make sure that each column is evenly spaced. Step back and help him analyze the cookie most favored and the least favorite one. Ask “How many more people liked chocolate chip than peanut butter cookies?”  “What was the second most favorite kind?” “How do you know?”
  • Create a large Venn diagram by overlapping two Hula hoops. Or you can use string to create and overlap two large circles. Together read a favorite book, such as The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister and J. Alison James. After reading the book, talk about ways the Rainbow Fish is like a real fish. For example, both live in water. Help her write that on a small note or index card and place it in the space where the circles overlap to show characteristics that the story fish and a real fish might share. Try to find three examples of how they are alike. On the other spaces of the diagram, where there is no overlap, help her write characteristics of the Rainbow Fish that are not real, and place them to the left of the intersection. To the right, place a few characteristics of real fish that are not shared by the Rainbow Fish. When finished, help her compare and contrast how the fictitious fish and a real fish are alike and how they are different.

Graphs are an important learning tool because they demonstrate information visually. They help a child organize data to increase greater comprehension of reading and math facts. 

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Try Quizlet for Summertime Math Vocabulary Review

Every subject students take in school has specific facts and vocabulary associated with it. In history, students must learn people’s names, events that happened, and important dates. In literature, there are character names to learn, symbols, and literary terms. We tend to think that math is different, but it is not. If the math terminology is automatic, then understanding the problems will be easier. This is especially true if doing word problems. Summertime is a great time to review. Coming back to school in the fall with last year’s math vocabulary secure in memory and a beginning level of next year’s vocabulary already learned will likely make math much easier. Quizlet is great tool for reviewing math vocabulary. Quizlet offers review in the form of flash cards, games, or tests.

There are two approaches that will help next year in math—reviewing last year’s math vocabulary and previewing next year’s. If your child just finished taking Algebra I and will be taking geometry next year, he should spend time reviewing Algebra I vocabulary. He can go to Quizlet and search for it. Many teachers and students have posted their sets of study cards, and almost any subject is already available. He should start by using the flash cards to make sure he still knows the vocabulary. After he feels comfortable, he can play Scatter and Race which make the learning more fun.

After spending time reviewing last year’s math course, your child can begin working on next year’s vocabulary. She can search for “geometry vocabulary” to find a set of terms to begin learning. It might be beneficial to search for terms from previous years. If she is in 7th grade, she could look for 5th grade geometry vocabulary. It is important that this review is not frustrating, and that she has enough success to enjoy playing the games. Any review of geometry terms will make math easier next year.

Quizlet is useful for reviewing almost any subject. The frequently used element names and symbols will be useful in almost every science course. Reviewing literary terms, states and capitals, and historical events can help. It is, however, most helpful in math. Many students struggle because they do not remember all the mathematics terms. It is hard to find the additive inverse of a negative number if you don’t remember what an additive inverse is! It is important to have some recreation and relaxation time in the summer, but just a few minutes a day reviewing math vocabulary can set your child up for greater success next year in math.

If your child needs to drill her math facts as well as vocabulary, you should read about some math games that help drill facts while having fun.

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Math Games To Keep Skills Sharp in Summer

Summer vacation should be just that. It should be time for students to relax and enjoy life without worrying about school. This is especially true for those who find school difficult and exhausting. On the other hand, summer is also the time when math facts are forgotten. When facts are automatic, they are easily used to solve higher level problems. When students are fluent in basic math skills, their mental energy can be used to work on more complicated math concepts. So, the trick is to figure out a way to make practicing math facts during summer vacation fun so students will practice without feeling like they are still in school.

One option is to find games children enjoy. My favorite math facts game is called Math War. This card game can be played with regular decks of cards. Here are instructions to learn how to set up the decks as well as to find variations for how to play the game. The game can be set up so that two siblings of different ages can play together and both be challenged. For example, when play starts, both people put down two of their cards face up. The younger player can be asked to add or subtract their cards and the older player can also add or subtract, but for them red cards are negative numbers and black cards are positive numbers. This adds a level of challenge to make it fair to the younger child. Depending on the variation of Math War, sometimes the largest sum wins and sometimes the smallest.

There are many free apps for smartphones or tablets that are fun ways to practice math skills. The trick is to find something your children enjoy playing so that it doesn’t seem like school. In fact, a variety of math games is best.

I hope you and your children have some quality fun time together this summer. Please let me know if you have some fun learning games your children enjoy. I encourage you to play with your children so they will see that you enjoy math games, too.

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10 Important End-of-Year Questions for Your Child’s Teacher

End-of-the-year progress reports usually come home on the last day of school. This often leaves parents with unanswered questions about what the report really means. Parents may wonder just how well prepared their young child is for the next grade level. Before the end of school, parents should ask the teacher some important questions about their child’s yearlong progress.

Here is a list of 10 questions that should give parents some insight into what the progress report means, as well as preparation for the next grade:

  • Is my child’s reading on grade level, based on Common Core State Standards?
  • If yes, how can I continue to support their reading all summer?
  • If not, what can I do to help him improve skills?
  • Would you give me a list of recommended reading books to support her level?
  • Would you share some strategies to help increase his decoding, comprehension, or fluency skills? (Identify targets that might need improvement.)
  • Are her math skills on grade level, based on Common Core State Standards?
  • What are some strategies to keep math skills strong?
  • Would you recommend some math games to practice needed skills?
  • How can I help my child continue writing skills?
  • How does my child measure up socially and emotionally with classmates?


Answers to these questions will give you a clearer understanding of what needs to be done over summer vacation to keep skills sharp.

Make a commitment to keep learning strong and prevent “summer slide.” This will give your child an excellent base for a positive start in September!

I’ve written a number of blogs with simple reading and math games, including:

> Improving Reading Fluency With Nonsense Words
> Hands-On Math Games
> An Easy Game To Help Kids Practice Important Math Skills

As well, check the SchoolFamily.com collection of math printables for board games and other activities.

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With Learning, It Doesn't Matter How Long It Takes

Last week, I wrote about grades and what they really mean. Do they really reflect actual learning? Teacher Ron Simmons tells a story in his math classes at Hilton Head Prep School. He shares this with his math students when they tell him they’re not good in math.

He asks his students, “How old were you when you learned to walk?” He pauses for a moment. Then he randomly selects someone and says, “I bet you walked very early. I bet you walked when you were only eleven months old.” To another he says, “I bet you were fifteen months old before you learned to walk.”

They begin to talk about when they learned to walk when Mr. Simmons says, “What difference does it make? You all are really good at walking now. Does it really matter when you learned as long as you finally did learn how?”

He then relates this story to learning math. He says that some students learn it really quickly and call themselves “good at math.” Others take longer. They might even take a really long time to finally get it. Once again he asks the question, “What difference does it make how long it takes to learn it? As long as you learn it in the end you will all be “good at math.” Then Mr. Simmons and his students get down to the business of learning math.

I really love this story because it is such a great illustration of how we should be thinking about the purpose of school. It also points out that all children are not exactly alike. Some catch on quickly in history but not so quickly in science. Others struggle in English or with grammar. All children need to be encouraged to keep trying. They need to know that failure is an important part of life, and that a strong work ethic is a great predictor of future success. They also need to know that it doesn’t matter how long it takes to learn a skill as long as they eventually do learn it. Everyone can be “good at math” if they work hard enough and keep on trying.

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A Mystery Game To Improve Mental Math Skills

Understanding basic addition and subtraction facts provides a tremendous advantage to kindergarten and 1st grade students.

The more a young child can quickly and accurately make addition and subtraction combinations mentally, the greater his math fluency will be. This is important because effortlessly retrieving basic math facts allows students to advance easily to higher level mathematics.

Here is a fun mystery game to help your young child increase his mental math skills. This game can be adapted for either kindergarteners or 1st graders.


You will need:

  • Something to use as a cover: a piece of construction paper, folded piece of newspaper, torn-off magazine cover, paper plate, etc.
  • Twenty small, flat objects, somewhat uniform in size: pennies, Lego pieces, Cheerios, or M & M’s, for example.

Here’s how to play: 
  • For a kindergarten child, start with five of the small objects. Let your child count out five so he knows there is a total of only five. Have him close his eyes or turn away so he can’t see what you are doing. 
  • To practice addition facts, show some of the five objects and cover some.  For example, cover three objects and leave two uncovered. Then tell him to look. Ask, “How many do you see?”  He answers, “Two.” Then ask, “How many are under the cover to make five?” If he is having trouble, uncover to show three and let him count up from two. Do this with all addition combinations of five, in random order: show 4, hide 1; show 3, hide 2; show 1, hide 4. And don’t forget to show 5, hide 0; and show 0, hide 5.
  • To practice subtraction facts, show all five objects, then have him close his eyes or turn away. Move three under the cover. Have him turn back to see two. Say, “We had five, now you see two. How many did I move under the cover?” Do this with all subtraction facts for five, including zero.
  • Once he has easily mastered all “five” facts, gradually work up to the combination facts for 10.
  • For a 1st grade child, start with combination facts to equal 10, then gradually build up to combination facts for 20.
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Forget the "Brain Drain:" Combine Family Summer Travel and Education

Who else seriously needs a break…from summer break?!

We’ve had a “goodncrazy” summer, filled with road trips, air trips, summer camps, camping-camps, and very little home time.

Parents always worry about the education “brain drain” during summer vacation. And, like us, when you aren’t home to keep up on reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic, how do you keep more than a few facts from slipping out of your kids’ brains?!

That said, the Rogers family departs once again, heading out for our last vacation before summer ends. This time it’s to NJ for a beach visit to the Garden State, where we used to live. School for the goodncrazy kids starts in a few short weeks so there literally won’t be time to stuff their brains with educational catch-up once we return.

Not a problem, however.

We plan to create educational experiences and plug the brain drain without them even knowing it!


5 Ways to Sneak in Education While on Vacation!  (Shall we call it Edu-Vacationing?)

  • Before you leave, include the kids in some research. Map out the destinations, learn about different transportation options available in a large city (like subways and bus systems), help kids make any flight reservations, and include them in last minute changes to itineraries. These are all great geography lessons. Not to mention life lessons!


  • Plan to visit educational sites while on vacation. Museums, historic monuments and even family birthplaces can all be very educational! We are super excited about visiting the National Park Service's Thomas Edison Park in West Orange, NJ. We lived right next door for 3 years and never saw it. Now we’re flying 2,000 miles and we are NOT going to miss it! My little boy is a science freak so it’s a no brainer to look for science-related museums and outings while on vacation. (Surprise bonus: There’s a fabulous kid’s science play area in the San Francisco airport!)


  • Don’t tell the kids it’s good for them. I’m talking about electronic educational apps masquerading as games! It’s simple: In Google Play or in iTunes search for educational games. There are hundreds (maybe thousands?), so start with the free versions and when you like one upgrade to the paid version for more benefits. (Tip: Famigo is a family-friendly review site, so start there!) A few of our favorites include: Chocolate Fix by  ThinkFun; SuperWhy, a new app by PBS Kids; and YabberMag by Big Red Publications. Education and entertainment, all in one!


  • Learn a language together! We found out that our high school has access to Rosetta Stone (a language learning company), and for a small fee we were able to have access the Spanish software, giving our teen a bit of a head start on her language class. Since we take our laptops with us on most trips (the software doesn’t work on iPads), she can use the Internet interface during downtime. Not to leave out the younger kids we found a really great language app called MindSnacks. The first two levels are free, and the full version is $5 for 20 levels (Dad already speaks the language so we test ourselves on him!)


  • Follow up after landing back home. Help your kids write a silly version of “What I Did on Summer Vacation,” including drawings they make about the places you visited. Ask the older kids to pen a fun poem with rhyming words—Dr. Suess style—about each day of vacation. And pull out all your receipts and have the kids help tally up the cost of the trip. See if they can spot ways to cut costs for the next family-travel event!


Summer is winding down fast for us. And yet many of my friends across the country are already in school!

What did YOU and your family do for summer vacation?

Editor's note: Check these SchoolFamily.com articles about other ways to prevent summertime "brain drain"and keeping kids fit and active during the summer.

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In Math (and In Life), Which is More Important—the Process or the Outcome?

I was reading an article about the state of special education in American schools. There was a statement in the article that essentially said that schools “value the process over the outcome.” I began to wonder what that means.

The article was referring to schools that focus on compliance with state and federal laws rather than focusing on the child and what needs to happen for her. But, there are other places where we also value the process over the outcome.

For example, in math classes students are taught a specific method for arriving at an answer. I have seen teachers write the steps on the board for how to solve a long division problem (or any other kind). They then monitor their students to make sure they are following the process correctly. In truth, there are other ways to arrive at the same outcome (correct answer)!

You can arrive at the correct answer in long division using the traditional method almost all of us learned; using the double division method; or even using a calculator. The best way might be to use a calculator—but, then what do you do with that decimal remainder?! Or, the best way might be to use double division. The truth is, everyone needs to be able to get the right answer (the correct outcome), but we do not necessarily need to use the same method (the process).

But, as parents and educators we sometimes value the “process over the outcome.” I wrote an article once about how to do double division. You would have thought I suggested something completely absurd. I was accused of allowing students to be lazy and that I lacked mathematical “rigor.”

Another area where we experience this is when using the computer. For most software programs there are multiple ways to arrive at the same product. I often teach people how to use software. Invariably I will be showing how to do something, and someone will say, “You can also….” They will then tell everyone a different way to do the same thing. It really doesn’t matter how you do something as long as you are able to get the product you want in the end.

There are many examples of this both in and out of school. At home, for example, there are processes in place for when and how to do laundry, where to do homework, how to set the table, or how to put the dishes in the dishwasher.

As parents and teachers, we need to keep an open mind. If your son can arrive at the correct—or at least acceptable—outcome every time using his own process, why not allow it? His way might turn out to be better than yours! This may lead to fewer arguments, which is definitely a good thing. It also gives parents another way to allow their children to make choices for themselves. This is an important part of growing up and learning responsibility. Think about the needed outcome and stay open minded about the best way to achieve it.

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Do you allow your children to watch TV or play on the computer before doing their homework?

No - 37.4%
Sometimes - 25.4%
Yes - 31.6%

Total votes: 4919
The voting for this poll has ended on: June 25, 2016