Tag Archives: Math Concepts

Public Relations Advice on the Common Core Debate

The other day I wrote about the public relations problem facing the Common Core math standards. Posts from frustrated parents have been popping up on Facebook and Twitter for months claiming to show “Common Core” worksheets that are so confusing an electrical engineer or doctor can’t even figure it out.

Teachers have been valiantly, and sometimes argumentatively, trying to defend the ways in which math education has evolved since these parents were students in elementary school. Where once the focus was on direct teach, a limited set of algorithms, and countless repetition, now the focus is on developing number sense, strategic thinking, and broader reasoning skills.

While teachers have a lot of education research to back up their teaching methods, parents have their children to worry about, and they are scared that the instructional changes brought about by Common Core are going to be detrimental to their children’s learning. And this brings us to the PR problem facing the Common Core math standards.

Frustrated, scared, and angry parents have waged a battle in social media to bring attention to their concerns and scare other parents into action. At the same time, this serves to discredit the experience and expertise of teachers in the classroom. Unfortunately, when the issue boils down to pedagogy vs. children, the human element is more compelling. A parent scared for his child’s education is going to foster more sympathy than a teacher arguing the merits of modern math instruction.

I’ve been wondering what can be done to “fix” this problem, so I chatted with a friend of mine who works in public relations. This topic was admittedly outside her normal scope of work, but she raised a few interesting strategies that I want to share here.

A Singular Message

One of the most effective ways to wage a PR campaign is to have a singular message that is used by everyone involved. I feel that the frustrated parents have been successful with this. Their message is simply: “Common Core math instruction is so confusing, intelligent adults can’t make sense of it, much less our children.” Sure there is a lot wrong with this message, but the fact that it is repeated over and over gives it power, and that matters more than the truth of the statement.

My concern is that educators are too fragmented to develop and deliver their own singular message. We have some arguing with parents about how math education has changed in the past 20-30 years. We have others saying that the parents don’t know what they are talking about and should trust the teachers to do their job. We even have teachers who, for various reasons, are saying that they aren’t fans of the Common Core standards either.

Our message is fragmented and too varied to be as effective as the one put forth by the parents. How do we change that?

An Important Voice

My friend recommended finding someone who can serve as a respected “voice” in education. Someone whose words shine a spotlight and draw attention to issues. They may not create converts immediately of course. However, where we fail as many voices, we might find success by choosing the right person (or several people) to deliver an equally strong message as the one used by the parents, one that is supportive of the modern methods of teaching math in schools today.

I’m not sure who this person should be. I’m afraid that the Common Core standards are very much politicized, so having a politician be the voice would backfire. Honestly, the first two names that come to mind are Bill Gates and Sal Khan. I have my doubts that they would want to give the kind of message that is needed, but I can’t deny they are the kinds of people that these parents might stop and listen to.

A Parallel Message

I spoke about this a bit in my previous post. Whatever message is used to counter the frustrated parents, it cannot be worded so that it is against those parents and their viewpoints. Having an “us vs. them” dynamic is not going to help educators reach the outcome they want.

The message needs to be a parallel message. If parents have the space to share their views on how terrible Common Core math is, educators need to also have the space to share their vision of how math is being taught today and what benefits it has for children.


Long essays on the merits of today’s math pedagogy are not going to win over these parents. First of all, a lot of this writing is ending up in education websites and magazines that parents won’t see in the first place. Secondly, you want to keep your message simple to connect with as many people as possible.

My friend said one thing that might help is some kind of infographic(s) that illustrate the hows and whys of math education today. They need to be published in mainstream outlets so that the general public sees them frequently.

One of the biggest issues with the criticisms by the frustrated parents is that they are based in ignorance. Ignorance of what is going on in the classroom today, and ignorance because that’s how they feel when they are confused by an assignment and it is making them doubt their own math knowledge.

These parents are basing their arguments on how they learned math as kids many years ago. They are not aware of all the research that has been done to help improve teaching methods. So they cherry pick certain math topics, often whole number computation, and construct a narrative that teachers are making these “simple” skills way more complex than they need to be.

However, there are many, many adults who would be quick to tell you they are “bad” at math. If they aren’t confident in their own math skills beyond multi-digit addition, subtraction, multiplication, and possibly division, then what makes them think their math education was so amazing all those years ago? Shouldn’t they want their children to grow up to feel “good” at math?

Finding simple ways to illustrate and educate these parents will go a long way towards warming them up to what is going in schools and the benefits it can have for their children. And they have to see these things countless times. In addition to having a clear, consistent message it is crucial to have that message get out there as often as possible. A drop or five in the bucket won’t solve the problem. It’s going to take lots and lots of drops in the bucket.

One example that I’ve seen shared over and over by @trianglemancsd is 1,001 – 2. It’s a problem that can be solved using traditional methods, but it highlights why we encourage students today to think more critically about what they are doing. Why go to the effort of writing this problem down and crossing out all those zeroes? Just count back 2 and you’re done. I’ve seen a similar idea presented with 100 – 98.

Or better yet, contextualize it. Your favorite basketball team is currently leading 52 to 48. How many more points does the other team need to catch up? Oh, you counted up from 48 to 52. Interesting. Why didn’t you line up the numbers and subtract like you were taught?

I wonder if there is an effective way to present these kinds of problems visually to get parents to think first, and then give them an a-ha. Maybe a simple mental math solution and some tagline like, “There’s always more than one way to approach a problem.”

I would love to have some TV commercials that present a problem and then show various students solving the exact same problem using different strategy after different strategy. And again, end with a tagline that highlights this idea of the diversity in ways of thinking about math. This is what we’re trying to foster in our children. It’s also something they do naturally.

So there you have it. Advice from someone who works in PR about how we can try to overcome the bad publicity dogging the Common Core math standards.

Anyone out there want to take this and make it happen? Summer is starting so you have the next 3 months where parents may not be worrying about this issue quite as much. Use this time wisely and you can be ready on the first day of school next year to kick off your own PR campaign to inform and influence the parents at least in your own school if not farther afield.



I started this post by writing about how I felt bad that I haven’t written on this blog in a while. Then I remembered that I hate posts like that. My blog is here anytime I need it, and with everything else going on in my life the past few months, I just didn’t need it that much.

Now I do.

And thanks to @sophgermain starting a 30 day blogging challenge, I got the motivation to get going again. I’m not sure if I’ll succeed at #MTBoS30, but the idea was motivating enough to get me blogging tonight.

One thing I’d like to blog more about over the next 30 days is the job I do. I’ve written a little bit about my job since starting this blog, but for various reasons I always tried to keep my MathTwitterBlogoSphere life separate from my curriculum development life. I’m not entirely sure why, but now I’d like to change that. I see a lot of teachers benefiting from reflecting on their teaching on a regular basis (sometimes daily!), and I hope that I can gain my own insights by reflecting more directly on my work. I also hope it can give a small window into the world of curriculum design for those who are unfamiliar.

So for anyone stumbling on my blog today: Hello! My name is Brian and I am a senior content developer at McGraw-Hill Education. I work on a team developing the t2k math curriculum. I’ve been with MHE for a year and some change, but I actually started working on this curriculum back in 2009 as an employee of a company called Time To Know.

Looking back over the past 5 years, it’s hard to believe that when I started this job, iPads didn’t even exist! The educational landscape has changed so much in such a short amount of time. I remember my last year in the classroom, our school was just getting SMART boards. I never got one in my classroom *frown*, but I was over the moon with my document camera. That thing was amazing!

The reason I mention iPads specifically is because back in 2009 our curriculum was developed in Flash, and that really shot us in the foot when tablets started flooding the market. Over the past couple of years, Time To Know has rebuilt their entire Digital Teaching Platform so that it works on multiple devices – quite an impressive feat.

Now that they have completed their big task, I have the daunting task of leading a team converting our entire grade 4 and 5 curriculum into this new system. It’s quite an undertaking, but at the same time, it’s like visiting an old friend. When I first started at Time To Know, the math team was about halfway through writing grade 4, and grade 5 was the first full year of curriculum I helped write.

In some ways it’s exciting to see these lessons again, and in other ways there’s that awkwardness of revisiting pedagogical decisions I made just as I was starting the job. While the lessons have gone through some upgrades since I first wrote them, I can’t help but think of ways I want to make them even better.


Ratios and Rates 2 (#MSMathChat)

One of the activities I mentioned to help segue into ratios and rates is to practice making all kinds of comparisons. For example, since we’re close to Valentine’s Day you could start by giving each student in class a small box of those nasty Valentine heart candies. Tell the students you want them to write comparisons about the hearts in their box. I wouldn’t give them too many examples of what you mean ahead of time because you want them to generate the comparisons themselves, but if students aren’t sure what you mean, you might say something like, “In my box there are 6 more yellow hearts than green hearts.” That should get them started.

After students have counted and compared their hearts in a variety of ways, share as a class. Without telling the students, group comparison statements into two groups – additive comparisons and multiplicative comparisons. After the students are done sharing, see if they can determine why the statements are grouped the way they are.

Just in case these terms might be new to you, an additive comparison is one that uses addition or subtraction to compare quantities. For example if I have 6 green hearts and 9 red hearts, I would say, “I have 3 more red hearts than green hearts,” or, “I have 3 less green hearts than red hearts.” Additive comparisons are ones students are very comfortable with. They have been making these comparisons since elementary school.

Students are likely less experienced with multiplicative comparisons, and they need to develop this understanding as they begin working with ratios. For example, if I have 8 yellow hearts and 4 blue hearts, I would say, “I have twice as many yellow hearts as blue hearts,” or, “I have half as many blue hearts as yellow hearts.” Understanding multiplicative comparisons is important because it is essentially the value of the ratio. If I have an 8:4 ratio, I know there are 8/4 or 2 times as many of the first quantity as the second. If I look at it as a 4:8 ratio, I know there are 4/8 or ½ as many of the first quantity as the second.

If no one comes up with a multiplicative comparison in the initial round of sharing, then you have to take a different approach. Tell the students that they all made one type of comparison, and now you are going to share some comparisons that are different from the ones the students shared. Give a few examples of multiplicative comparisons based on the amount of hearts a few students have. Then ask students if they can make comparisons like these using their own hearts. Ask them how these two types of comparing are different. How do you know when you’re making one type or the other?

To extend the activity, you can have students make more additive and multiplicative comparisons by comparing their box with another person’s box. Maybe instead of comparing colors, this time they compare the messages on the hearts. Or you could calculate the total hearts in the entire class and make comparisons about the total amount. You can even look for equivalent ratios. If the total amount in the room has a comparison of “twice as many yellow hearts as red hearts”, you might ask if any one box has that same relationship.

The key through this whole activity is:

  • Build on what students know from before, specifically their strength with additive comparisons (even if they don’t know that term).
  • Practice making a fairly new type of comparison (multiplicative) to get students comfortable with the language, especially being flexible in going both ways. If I say there are four times as many of quantity 1 as quantity 2, I need to be able to reverse that and say there is ¼ as much of quantity 2 as quantity 1.
  • Using concrete objects to model both types of comparisons. (You might have to ask students to justify how they can see a pile of 12 blue hearts and 4 yellow hearts and know that means there are 3 times as many blue as yellow. Where does the “three times” come from in the candies in front of you?)

Ratios and Rates 1 (#MSMathChat)

Tonight I happened to catch #MSMathChat for the first time in a long time, and the topic was one near and dear to my heart – ratios and rates. The funny thing is that ratios and rates are a topic I loathed up until a couple of years ago.

I loathed them mostly because I didn’t understand them that well. When I was in school growing up, I was one of those kids who was great at math as long as I could be shown a procedure and then follow it. Meaning rarely entered into the equation. Unfortunately, ratios are really all about meaning – about relationships between quantities – and I never got that. I just saw them as two numbers separated by a colon, and that was about it.

A couple of years ago, I had to start writing math lessons on ratios and rates, and I felt like a fish out of water. Since I didn’t have much choice about writing the lessons, I started digging in to the topic. I’m particularly thankful for this book for challenging me to think and reason more than I ever had to growing up. Some of the problems in the book were flat out hard, but I was so proud of myself whenever I came up with the correct answer.

Another challenge in the book was understanding how students had solved the exact same problems I solved. I loved reading over their solutions, trying to figure out what they were thinking and what they were trying to say. I felt just as proud when I would finally piece together how some of these students solved problems completely different than me, but in creative and elegant ways.

I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say that I’m a pro at ratios and rates now, but I do understand them finally, and I love what they represent. During our Twitter chat tonight, I suggested some ideas that I couldn’t really elaborate in bursts of 140 characters, so I’ve taken to my blog to try to flesh them out a bit more.

Exploring MTBoS: Mission #1

Starting this week I’m taking off on an 8-week adventure Exploring the MathTwitterBlogosphere (Explore MTBoS for short). I’ve been loosely connected to the MTBoS since last August when Dan Meyer encouraged educators to start blogging. Like many people, I went all in for a while, but then life got in the way, and I haven’t really maintained my blog so much lately. Thanks to the Explore MTBoS program, I will at least be blogging and making connections for the next eight weeks, and perhaps it will give me the motivation to keep it going after the eight weeks are up.

Mission #1

We had to choose from two prompts. I chose:

What is one thing that happens in your classroom that makes it distinctly yours? It can be something you do that is unique in your school…It can be something more amorphous…However you want to interpret the question! Whatever!

For whoever happens to read my blog for the next part of this mission, I’m actually out of the classroom currently. I was an elementary school teacher for 8 years, and for the past four years I’ve been a math curriculum developer. However, just because I’m out of the classroom doesn’t mean my memory has gone foggy or anything.

With regards to math education in particular, what made my classroom distinctly mine, even though I got the idea from a co-teacher, was Problem of the Day (or P.O.D. as my kids liked to call it). As the name implies, the students were presented a new problem at the beginning of every math class.

At the time, I had a specific goal for doing Problem of the Day. The high stakes test in Texas, the TAKS test (which is now the STAAR), had six objectives and the sixth objective was called “Mathematical Processes and Tools”. It was a doozy of an objective because it wasn’t really about any particular math concepts. Rather it was about asking students a variety of questions that required problem solving and reasoning. Supposedly having good teaching methods while teaching the core content was enough to prepare students for Objective 6, but after many years in the classroom I knew that my students could easily be thrown for a loop by those questions. So during Problem of the Day I often used Objective 6 questions from released TAKS tests.

(As an aside: Looking back, I’m not proud that I focused on doing this for test prep. I am not a fan of high stakes tests, but the reality at the time is that it was my responsibility to prepare my students and this is the method I chose to try. As it turns out, it worked out amazingly well, and I see now that I could use Problem of the Day, or a related structure, to actually enhance my general math teaching.)

So as I said, I presented a new problem every day. Our school used a problem solving structure called FQSR (Facts, Question, Solve, Reflect). My students would divide their paper into a grid and label each section F, Q, S, or R to represent their work in that section. The first thing they had to do after they read the problem was to write down whatever facts they felt would help them solve the problem. Then they had to write the question they were being asked. (This actually made for some great conversation and also gave me some wonderful insights into how students comprehended what they were reading.) Next, they had to solve the problem in whatever way made sense to them. Finally, they had to write a response (reflection) that explained why they did what they did and what their answer to the question was.

When they were done, they would bring it up to me to read over their work. I wouldn’t tell them if they were correct or incorrect. Rather, I would ask them questions or point out where I was confused while looking at their work. The student would go sit down and use my questioning to continue working on their solution. Sometimes they would start over, sometimes they would elaborate more in their reflection, whatever they felt they needed to do. If I got a line of students waiting to see me, it was their job to share their work with each other in line while I continued reviewing work. Sometimes students would come up and see me 3, 4, or even 5 times to continue getting feedback on their solution. All the while, I never verified whether their answer was correct.

After it seemed like most of the class was ready to continue, we moved to the presentation phase where students got up and shared their solution with the class. They stood up at the front and shared their work using our document camera. I stood in the back to make it clear that I wasn’t running the show. I let students ask the presenter questions to clarify. I would also ask questions to clarify. Usually we made it through 2-3 students before having a discussion about whether we could all agree on an answer. By this point students were generally in agreement (for good or ill), and I would finally give the answer.

When first starting P.O.D., I knew my students were going to be weak at showing their work and even weaker at writing their reflections. For the first few weeks, I would choose one of the students and I would model the solution and reflection sections based on their work. They would tell me what they did and I would talk about how I would show/write that on my paper. I did this for much longer than a teacher would normally feel comfortable, but I can tell you that it paid off big time. My students’ responses got better and better because they had worked with me to model what it means to write about math thinking. They understood the value of telling what nouns actually go with the quantities they were computing with, for example.

You’d think this would be a boring activity because I forced a structure on them day in and day out, but my kids loved it. Maybe it’s because of the classroom culture I fostered, maybe I had weird kids, or maybe it’s because I wasn’t the voice of authority. Sure, I would give feedback as they worked, but so did other students. Sure, I asked questions during someone’s presentation, but I was always in the back of the room, not in a place of control. Also, I didn’t ask as many questions as my students did. I was “with” them, not “above” them.

While my students learned a lot from doing P.O.D., it was a valuable experience for me as well. I learned that word problems can be much trickier than you’d think. Here are two examples. (I’m making up the wording, but the essence of the problems is the same.)

1. Matt baked 24 cookies. He ate 5 and his sister ate 6. How many cookies did they eat?

I kid you not, every year I’ve presented a problem with similar wording, my students invariably subtract to find the answer. Generally they do 24 – 5 – 6 to get 13. I’m sure you can guess why: Because cookies were eaten, and that just means the amount is going to go down. It just has to.

I LOVE talking about this problem with students during P.O.D.. (This actually isn’t an objective 6 TAKS question. I just snuck it in every year because I knew it would trip them up and lead to great discussion.) Even after talking about the problem with students, and finally getting a few of them to recognize their error in comprehending the question, I still have students after a good 15-20 minute discussion still unclear why the answer is 11. And I’m okay that not all of them get it by the end. Doing P.O.D. is about the process of learning to comprehend, reason through, and solve problems. I can take a loss here and there for the greater victory of developing strong problem solvers over time.

2. Jamal is going to the movies. He buys popcorn for $2.65 and a soda for $3.25. What information is needed to determine how much change Jamal received?

This is another problem that I love because it shows me very clearly that students can read words and completely ignore them. It also shows me that they make a lot of assumptions. Finally, it makes it clear why there is a step in FQSR where you identify the question – because it’s not always what you think it’s going to be! I was floored at how many of my students had temporary blindness when they got to “What information is needed to determine…” Once they got to “…how much change Jamal received?”, all of a sudden their sight returned and they started doing some computations with numbers. If you’re like me, you’re probably wondering how it didn’t occur to them that they had absolutely no idea how much money Jamal handed the cashier, but that did not phase a class of 22 fourth graders one bit. They happily presented me their solutions to the problem. It wasn’t until the class discussion that finally the idea was raised that a student wasn’t actually sure how much money Jamal had. I said that’s an interesting point and decided we should reread the problem together to see if we missed something. As we read “What information is needed to determine…” I stopped and asked my students what those words meant. Finally it dawned on them what they were being asked to do. It was a wonderful a-ha moment for them.

If you’re with me until now, thanks for taking the time to read all of this. While blog posts are encouraged to be on the concise side, I have lots to say, and saying it gets me excited and reinvigorates me.

Sure, in the end I did P.O.D. for test prep, and sure it turned out to be super effective with regards to my students’ scores on the objective 6 questions that year, but it turned out to be about so much more than that. It was about empowering students and helping them become the mathematical thinkers I wanted them to be all along. It gave me practice serving more as a coach and resource rather than as the voice of authority in my classroom, and it taught me a lot about how my students reasoned about solving problems. Now, if only I could have been on a TEAM of teachers that did roughly the same thing I wouldn’t have to be sharing it now as something I’m proud of that made my class distinctly mine.

EdCamp Dallas 2012: Blogging in the Classroom

This past weekend I attended edcampDallas. I had never heard of an edcamp until I joined the mathtwitterblogosphere back in August, and I count myself lucky that I stumbled upon the Dallas camp happening on September 29. I almost missed it!

So for those of you unfamiliar with the concept, I encourage you to visit the edcampDallas site linked above. There’s a great section titled “What is EdCamp?” that includes information and videos. Until you have time to do that, I’ll summarize it as follows: a conference put on by teachers for teachers. That hardly does it justice, so when you’re done reading this post, go check out the link!

I attended three sessions on Saturday, and learned a lot from each of them. I’m going to break my notes and thoughts on each one into its own blog post. The first session I attended was called “Blogging in the Elementary Classroom” by Cynthia Alaniz. The session was generally about blogging in the classroom, but Cynthia did a great job of focusing on her personal experiences to get ideas flowing from the rest of the group.

Basically what Cynthia does is collaboratively create a class blog with her 4th graders. She uses the blog as a tool to teach students about writing for a digital audience. While Cynthia writes most of the posts early in the year, she skillfully transfers responsibility more and more to the students as the year progresses. At first they might make suggestions about post topics, but eventually the students generate topics on their own and write the posts themselves.

Cynthia also teaches her students how to be responsible digital citizens as they learn how to comment on the blog. The students learn about proper and improper blog comments and the effects comments have on readers.

In addition to teaching writing skills, Cynthia uses various parts of her blog to teach other skills as well. For example, she uses the site visit counter to practice place value, estimating, and subtraction. The students also learn about geography as they learn about the different countries that have visited their blog. Cynthia keeps a large map out in the hallway, and anytime a visitor stops by their blog from a new country, the class marks it on the map.

What I really like about Cynthia’s blog is that she’s giving her students an authentic audience. When students read a book, for example, they know they have a place to share their thoughts about it with real people! The even get to interact with these people through the site’s comments. Cynthia isn’t artificially inventing a motivator for her students. The blog weaves itself seamlessly into the students’ work while giving them an age-appropriate experience with becoming digital citizens. The students love taking part in it and seeing how they can impact the lives of others beyond the walls of their school.

If you have a chance, I highly recommend checking out the blog:


The class will appreciate it, too, because their goal is to have 25,000 visitors by December, so you’ll be helping out the class while seeing firsthand the power of blogging in the classroom.