Marvelous Math

“Which of Beauvoir’s Life Rules do you think is most important? Add to the graph to show what you think.” For a month, these words greeted all who passed through Beauvoir’s front hallway. Mounted on the wall next to the words, a giant bar graph invited members of the school community to make their mark for one of Beauvoir’s four schoolwide rules—Be honest; Be respectful; Be kind; or Be responsible.

For several weeks, everyone in the school community, including students from preK to grade three, teachers, other school staff, parents, and visitors, contributed to the graph by placing a sticker next to the rule of their choice. One rule—”Be kind”—received so many votes that the rows had to be extended several times. Before long, the graph stretched all the way down the hallway and even turned a corner.

At Beauvoir, an all-school math activity like this graphing project is a monthly tradition called “Marvelous Math.” Each new activity is introduced during the school’s monthly community meeting (a gathering of all students and adults in the school) before it is displayed in the front hallway. Anyone can respond, and at the next community meeting a representative from the school’s math committee presents a sampling of the results. “We originally thought of this as a way to build excitement and a sense of community around math,” says Maryann Heim, at the time a first grade teacher and chair of the school’s math committee. She adds that besides achieving that goal, the program has had learning benefits for math committee members as well.

Designing multi-age math problems

The math committee, comprising teachers from each grade level at the school, meets regularly to consider math-related schoolwide issues. For the past three years, they’ve also spent part of their September meeting planning Marvelous Math problems for the upcoming school year. Typically, committee members come to the meeting with ideas spanning many different types of mathematical thinking, including measuring, estimating, computation, representing data, and probability. Working together, they turn the ideas into problems that children in all the grades will find solvable and challenging. “Creating the problems has been a great way for us to learn from each other what teaching math is like with students of different ages,” says Maryann. For instance, for the “Life Rules” graphing problem, a kindergarten teacher explained that using stickers to show their answers would be more manageable for younger students than coloring in the graph.

A choice to participate

Marvelous Math is a voluntary activity. After the math committee introduces a challenge, everyone in the school is invited to examine the display and work out their answers on their own, with friends, or with family members. Most problem solving activity takes place at in-between times, such as before and after school. Families are included through newsletter messages that encourage them to work on solving the monthly problem with their children.

Emphasizing strategies, rather than solutions

The math committee designs problems to be solvable in more than one way, such as “How would you measure the number of steps it takes to go around our building?”

“A lot of times there’s not just one right answer,” says Maryann, describing how that particular problem led some children to compare “baby steps” to “giant steps” and others to realize that they could count steps going halfway around and then double that number. “We focus on encouraging them to explain how they arrived at their solution. For problems where we collect written answers, we ask that they explain their thinking, using any method, including writing, numbers, drawing, or having a parent or older sibling help.”

Sharing the results

Wrapping up the challenge at the end of the month offers another opportunity for building community and sharing math ideas. For instance, an April challenge (coordinated with Beauvoir’s observance of Earth Day) asked students to estimate how many bags of trash the school produces and to suggest waste-reduction ideas. At the end-of-April community meeting, the math committee described a few different ways students made their estimates and then shared some of the waste reduction ideas submitted to the solution box.

Boosting enthusiasm, building community

So far, says Maryann, the program has been very successful. “At first we weren’t sure it would work to just set it up in the hallway and leave it there for a month. We didn’t know if anyone would answer! But although some problems have been more popular than others, students from all grade levels have participated each time.” Marvelous Math has helped everyone at Beauvoir become more aware of the many ways math thinking and problem solving skills apply to their everyday lives.

Beauvoir, The National Cathedral Elementary School

Setting: urban, independent school
Grades: PreK to 3
Number of students: 386
Number of classrooms: 19

Tags: Engaging Academics, Math