Math homework

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REXBURG — Lincoln Elementary students have a reputation among some as being particularly apt at basic math skills — which could be attributed to a math fluency program called Math Mastery.

Some teachers also feel the program is filling gaps created by new inquiry-based curricula.

The Math Mastery program, which starts at first grade, supplements math skills taught in the classroom. It helps kids increase their speed and accuracy in basic math.

The program is supported by teachers and run by PTO volunteers.

“The goal is to help the kids learn their math facts quickly and accurately,” said parent volunteer Rachel Hurst.

Math Mastery also gives the students a foundation and a “tool box” to work with as they progress through their education and life, Hurst said.

“What we try to do is make sure the kids have a carpenter pouch full of tools and that they’re proficient with those tools,” Shirley said.

Following the same analogy, from there the students can use those tools and their knowledge of using them to “build houses” as they continue on after elementary school, learning other, more advanced skills.

The way the program works is that students receive a worksheet of math problems and are tasked with practicing the worksheet regularly until they can finish it with 100 percent accuracy within a certain time limit.

Students take timed tests at the end of each week, and a parent volunteer scores the tests. After passing a test, a student will move on to the next worksheet level. If not, he or she will keep practicing on that worksheet before retesting the following week.

Special tests are available to accommodate special needs children.

While parent volunteers emphasize that the best incentive should be gaining knowledge and confidence in their math skills, students also receive other incentives throughout the program. The first time a child passes a test, he or she receives a dog tag chain with a bead. Students receive additional beads as they pass each test, and when they achieve certain levels of mastery they earn ranks: Math Master, Einstein and Doctorate, for which the children receive dog tags to add to their chain.

For the three ranks, students also get their names on the Math Mastery Bulletin Board and are invited to a math lunch, where they get to eat at the Math Mastery table with the principal. They receive a small treat and a few extra recess minutes as well.

The Math Mastery program is available online on the Lincoln Elementary website, so students from any school can benefit from the free program. Parents can get instructions and training and find access to all the timed sheets on the website at http://msd321.com/apex/f?p=ELEMENTARY:CONTENT:::::SITE_CODE,P2_PAGE_ID:LE,3469.

“A lot of parents who moved from Lincoln miss the program,” said parent volunteer Janette Wood.

Hurst said that with the state moving more toward inquiry-based learning, some teachers feel the new curriculum skips over basic math facts, though students are still expected to know them.

“They’ve said, ‘I’m really glad we’re doing Math Mastery because it fills in a hole,’” she said.

Although Shirley has not heard anything from teachers about this, he explained that the school’s “salad bar approach” to math improvement could be filling gaps, in a sense.

In addition to Math Mastery, Lincoln students have access to a program called Reflex Math, an online program purchased by the school through which kids can earn points through a video game-like format. They can also use a program called MobyMax, another web-based learning program purchased by the school district.

Shirley calls it a salad bar approach because if one of the three programs doesn’t appeal to one person, he or she has other options. Students learn in many different ways, he said.

“I suppose it fills holes in that way,” he said.

He said the new inquiry-based learning curriculum is a great step forward in learning because it doesn’t just teach kids how to memorize and pass tests, but it teaches them the “why” behind what they are doing. When kids really know the basic math facts, the inquiry-based aspect comes easier, he said.

Shirley has heard and found there is a perception that Lincoln students going on to the middle school do especially well with their math facts. Shirley, wanting to see if this is true, has been following the progress of some students to see how they do in this area.

While he doesn’t know for sure yet if Math Mastery or Reflex Math has created a marked difference from kids at other schools, he said kids from Lincoln have a good reputation for basic math skills.

Whatever the case, Shirley said the fact that parents are so excited about the program plays a role in its effectiveness.

“Our parents are absolutely phenomenal,” he said. “They’re so interested in what’s going on.”

Shirley’s purpose in seeing whether Lincoln students do better at basic math is not out of competition, but out of a desire to see his students become the best they can be.

Wood and Hurst did not start the Math Mastery program at Lincoln, but they run it now. The program has been in existence for several years, although it has changed over time. Wood and Hurst have worked hard to improve it.

“We gave it a pretty good overhaul,” Hurst said.

These two parents and other volunteers have given many hours to the program — Hurst and Wood even spent much of the first week of school at Lincoln getting everything going.

Their dedication is perhaps due their belief in the program.

When Wood’s son was in first grade and about to start the Math Mastery program, she was worried it would make him anxious. She was a volunteer at the time and saw how the program translated to her son doing better in his schoolwork. She also saw a big difference in his confidence. She felt that his success in Math Mastery translated to areas other than school.

“And then I was sold on it,” she said.