It All Adds Up
More homework. That’s the response of many school districts feeling increasing pressure to enhance student achievement. It’s a response that can burden not just students, but also parents, who are already short on time and energy to help with homework. Teachers, too, can feel stress related to assigning more homework.
When it comes to math, the homework burden can be especially heavy. Math success once depended upon rote memorization and mastery of simple algorithms. Now, however, children must be adept at analytical thinking, problem solving, and mathematical communication. Add to that the frequent changes in math curricula typical in many school districts and it’s easy to see why math homework can confuse children, trouble teachers, and leave parents feeling incompetent at helping their children learn.
After struggling with this problem, I began devising math homework that reached school district math goals by way of children’s communities—the things they see and do in their neighborhoods every day. The concreteness and relevancy of these “neighborhood math” problems encouraged the children to pay attention to their surroundings and made homework easier and more enjoyable for them to do—and for parents to help with or check. Plus, the insights into the children’s daily lives that I gleaned from this kind of homework helped me know them better and teach them more effectively.
Here are some examples of the kinds of problems that helped connect math and daily life for my students. You’ll want to devise your own problems to suit your students’ neighborhoods, their developmental stage and skill levels, your curriculum goals, and the availability of parents or others to help with homework.
Kindergarten and First Grade
Math skills to work on in . . .
. . . kindergarten: Counting and sorting; set making; simple addition and subtraction using real materials; graphing; simple equations; exploring size, shape, length, and volume; using paper and pencil to record number work.
. . . first grade: Work with and without manipulatives; basic computation with money; reversing operations (plus and minus); measuring.
- Draw a picture of five objects you can see in front of your house or apartment building.
- Put the five objects in order from smallest to largest; from largest to smallest.
- Count the number of poles on your street. Are all the poles the same size? Can you guess what the poles are for?
- How many kinds of trees grow on your block? Find the three tallest trees and draw a picture of a leaf from each tree.
- This weekend, count how many people you see wearing uniforms. Make a chart to show what you saw each day of the weekend.
- You want to buy a bottle of juice. Find out how much it costs in your neighborhood and draw a picture of the money you’ll need.
Second and Third Grades
Math skills to work on in . . .
. . . second grade: Computation with money; time; more complex mental math; equation solving; fractions through measurement, weighing, comparing; symmetry and other simple geometry; simple computation with multiplication and division based on experience with concrete materials; games for skills practice.
. . . third grade: Problem solving using all four operations; fractions through measurement, weighing, and some pencil and paper tasks; borrowing and carrying; geometric patterns constructed with pencil and paper; games for skills practice.
- See how many square, rectangular, and circular signs you can find in your neighborhood. Make a graph to show what you’ve learned.
- Use your shoe to measure the distance from your front door to the kitchen, from the front door to the street, and from a bedroom to a bathroom. Write down your data. Now measure and record again, but this time use an adult’s shoe. How are the two sets of data different? How are they the same?
- Walk around your neighborhood and choose something you find interesting. Now create three word problems based on your choice—one addition, one subtraction, and one multiplication. For example: There are 12 streetlights on the right side of my street and 14 on the left side. How many streetlights altogether? How many more streetlights on the left side? If you multiply the streetlights on the right by two, how many streetlights is that?
- Count the windows in your house or apartment. If it takes 2 minutes to clean each window, how long does it take to clean all of the windows?
- Someone in your family agrees to help you clean the windows, so you have to clean only 1/2 of them. Use division to find out how many you have to clean.
- You and two other people in your family help each other clean the windows. The first person takes 14 minutes to do the cleaning, the second person takes 10 minutes, and you take 6 minutes. How long, altogether, does your family spend cleaning windows?
Fourth, Fifth, & Sixth Grades
Math skills to work on in …
. . . fourth grade: Division, extensive experience with word problems; computation with money; beginning work with decimals; practice with multiplication tables.
. . . fifth grade: Mastery of multiplication tables; extensive work with decimals; extensive computation with fractions; measurement; measurement computation with maps; double-digit division.
. . . sixth grade: Complicated word problems; probability and statistics through real problems; use of calculator and computer; computation for speed and accuracy; percentage.
- Measure the perimeter of each room in your home. Using these measurements, create a floor plan that shows all the rooms drawn to scale.
- Look in the newspaper for stories that use decimals. Think about how the decimals help to tell the story. Be prepared to share your thoughts.
- Ask everyone in your home about their favorite foods. Include your own favorites, too. Make a chart or graph to show what you’ve learned.
- Measure the height of everyone in your family. Have someone measure your height, too. Now make a scale drawing of each person.
- Measure time and distance for the trip from your home to school. Interview two people about the time and distance of their trips to work. Now compare the times and distances. What did you find out?
- Check your fitness over the coming week. Each day, (1) count the number of pushups and situps you can do, (2) measure the height of your vertical jump, and (3) measure the distance of your broad jump. Over the weekend, use your data to create a fitness chart or graph.
Making math homework count
Homework is a reality of school life. But there are other important realities: students bored with assignments unconnected to their daily lives, parents who find it hard to help with homework based on unfamiliar approaches, and teachers struggling to find workable ways to know their students better. We can’t make homework go away, but we can make it more relevant, enjoyable, and accessible. Math homework based on children’s surroundings is one way to knit together math success and family life, using the community as the yarn.
Gail Zimmerman recently retired after thirty-four years as a classroom teacher (second, third, and fourth grades), reading specialist, and literacy coach at James Curley and Jackson Mann Elementary Schools in Boston, Massachusetts. Gail is a certified Responsive Classroom consulting teacher.