A Teacher’s Guide to Helping Kids With Common Core Math (Relax, Doesn’t Involve Actual Math)

Summer is over, kids are back in classrooms, and we’re quickly approaching the days of students cramming for quizzes and midterms.
Let the hand-wringing from parents mystified by Common Core math resume.
Aside from mothers and fathers attending class (a prospect no student would ever wish for), how can they prepare to help their kids excel in an era of new academic expectations?

Watch and Learn: Here’s How Kids Learn Math Today

As a teacher, it took me two years to adjust to the shift in standards, curricula and assessments, and mind you, I was working full time. So I’m not surprised to hear that the substantial shift in academic expectations brought by the Common Core has left many parents puzzled.
The good news for parents is that I’d never advise them to study mathematics in order to help their children. After all, instruction from an expert is what they should expect from their children’s teachers. I’ve noticed over the years that even the slightest mistake in my teaching leads to misconceptions that take tremendous effort to undo.
So, leave the main instruction to the pros.
That said, here are some tips for parents to help their children make strides in all Common Core classes, but particularly in math:
Tip 1: Can you justify that?
Because of the Common Core, teachers now require students to demonstrate that they understand the validity of others’ work and that they’ve used a reasonable, efficient mathematical procedure themselves. This helps students relay their thought processes in detail and grow more aware of their strengths and weaknesses.
In this substrand of Common Core standards, words such as “justify,” “explain,” “understand” and “analyze” abound. They may not be new to humanities instruction, but they are in quantitative instruction, especially math. Since my students have had growing pains with the Common Core, they enter my classroom perpetually surprised at the literacy demands in math and science.
Even if parents aren’t comfortable with the math their children are expected to do, they can have a rich and profitable discussion with their kids by using these words in conversation. Questions that might sound silly, like “Can you explain to me why One Direction is better than the Beatles?” or “Justify why starting school at noon instead of 8 a.m. would make you a better student,” have meaning for children and can help them get reps exercising their analytical muscles.
Since Common Core math and science (not to mention English and social studies) require these skills, kids will go back to class ready to articulate their reasoning.
Tip 2: Try some ‘real world’ math
First of all, don’t confuse “real world” math with Everyday Mathematics, which is a math curriculum developed by the University of Chicago. Both “real world” math and this curriculum overlap in that they are concerned with the intersection of math with people’s daily lives. Proponents of using real-world scenarios in the math classroom argue that this prepares students to solve the essential math problems that lie ahead for everyone. Critics dismiss the problems as too simple for a rich classroom experience.
I feel that varied practice of real-world math problems nearly always benefits students. A fun problem my former co-teacher and I did with students was a salary question: Say you got two job offers. Both were monthlong contracts. One paid $10,000 a day, but the other paid a penny the first day and doubled your salary every day after. Which job offered the better salary, and why? Students chose sides, argued, calculated and ultimately learned about a new kind of math function. (Bonus points to parents who know which type of function governs each salary offer — and, by the way, your kids would want to take the second one.)
Sure, real-world math doesn’t usually involve calculus, but it accomplishes a few things I like. For instance, it often presents problems that can and should be solved in multiple ways. This is great because students need multiple tools in their arsenals if they wish to succeed with Common Core math.
It also helps students recognize the many ways math affects their daily lives. As a high school teacher, I am always faced with students eager to debate the utility of algebra and geometry with me. The more students see scenarios rooted in daily life, the faster they will come around to math’s usefulness.
Bank accounts, budgets, lease agreements and dreaded college financial aid forms all use and require important, varied math skills. Moreover, these days, all citizens need a high level of math sophistication to read the news.
Part of the Common Core math movement in New York lies in the increased importance of statistics. This previously neglected corner of math education has assumed a far greater role through standards reform. So, having discussions with your kids about statistical citations in news stories, whether they be polling data, percentages that reveal inequities, or numbers indicative of inspirational positive change, will help them flex their mathematics muscles.
And guess what? Accepting or rejecting the statistics in the news will force them to use justification language as well.
Tip 3: Why the question is the answer
Kids never cease to frustrate teachers by responding to questions with “I don’t know.” While we don’t want to pillory students for their struggles, we always search for more detail in their replies to our questions.
It’s perfectly fine if my students don’t know the answer, but I want to know exactly where their understanding broke down. Whenever I have the chance, I observe them working or ask them a few questions to clarify what they do and don’t comprehend.
Working on this with your child not only will help reveal issues at hand but also will make them superior self-advocates. They might grow in confidence once they realize that they do, in fact, understand many aspects of a concept. At the very least, they will be able to do much more targeted work to improve. And all the while, they will be articulating their thought processes, which is essential to Common Core standards.
In my classrooms, I’m not only trying to help students master math and science concepts; I’m trying to give them a range of skills to open many future possibilities for them. I’m also attempting to convince them that they can work in all kinds of fields in the future. Finally, I just want to excite them about the world at large.
Making math a rich, relevant and recurring discussion in the house helps to accomplish these goals. Additionally, it makes kids better speakers. If they need help with math, or don’t see its point, try these strategies.
I would love to hear how they work, as I’m endlessly tweaking my practices. Let me know, and good luck to you and yours this year.
Suraj Gopal is a special education teacher at the Special Music School in New York City. He was employed as a reporting intern at The 74 last summer. Send your reactions — and Common Core questions — to info@the74million.org.

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