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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Teaching Elementary Students the Magic of Math

An Oregon elementary school has improved test scores by integrating math across all subject areas and focusing on teacher training. Read the article.

Teaching Elementary Students the Magic of Math (Transcript)

Teacher 1: [to the class] Today is what date?

Class: 10/04/05.

Narrator: It begins in the first five minutes of first period.

Teacher 1: [to the class] What kind of a number do I have? Is it a composite number? A prime number or a square number?

Class: Square.

Narrator: It continues throughout the day.

Boy 1: 3666.

Girl 1: Isn't it one square, though?

Narrator: In history class.

Steph Neyhart, Teacher: We're going to measure the length of Titanic outside.

Narrator: Art class.

Art teacher: [to the class] Whatever you make, has to be cut out...

Class: Symmetrical.

Art teacher: [to the class] Symmetrically.

Narrator: Computer Lab.

Mike Gould, Teacher: [to the class] And the next one.

Class: Four negative four.

Narrator: And it ends in last period, music class.

Music teacher: [to the class] We're going to take the math idea of below zero, and turn it into music.

Narrator: It is part of most everything that happens at Fullerton IV. A K-5 school in Roseburg, Oregon, it is...

Girl 2: But time would be only times-ing it by what? So it can be any number at all.

Narrator: The magic of math.

Teacher 6: [to the class] You are absolutely correct!

Mickey Garrison, Principal: To me, math is really not a subject. It really allows kids to learn how to reason and problem-solve, and learn how to effectively communicate.

Music teacher: [to the class] Now music is sound, so what would be the opposite of sound? Yeah?

Girl 3: Silence?

Music teacher: [to the class] Silence. How many of you...

Music teacher: If they can't think conceptually, it opens up not just math. It opens up thinking. It makes connections for them in the real world.

Music teacher: [to the class] Now remember to put some silence in your pattern.

Music teacher: It allows them to explore music and art. And so math is really the foundation.

Music teacher: [to the class] Oh, I see some really wonderful positive/negatives. Just like those math numbers. Great!

Narrator: With all the engaging ways to learn here, it's not surprising most Fullerton students say...

Girl 1: My favorite subject is math.

Girl 4: Doing math.

Girl 5: Probably math.

Girl 6: Math.

Boy 2: I like math a lot.

Boy 3: Probably soccer.

Girl 3: Probably reading and math.

Boy 2: I just like to add and subtract.

Interviewer: What's your second favorite subject?

Boy 3: Playing with friends.

Girl 7: I like division the most.

Girl 8: Math.

Interviewer: What do you like to do in the classroom?

Boy 3: Probably math.

Girl 9: My favorite subject is actually math!

Interviewer: How come?

Girl 9: I just like it!

Tammy Rasmussen, Teacher: Ooh, and we raise a quiet hand if you notice something. Give everyone...

Narrator: Fullerton's math curriculum is based on a continuous review of best practices. And delivered by highly trained teachers, beginning in kindergarten.

Tammy Rasmussen, Teacher: [to the class] Tell me about green/blue, green/blue, green/blue.

Boy 4: It's a pattern.

Tammy Rasmussen, Teacher: [to the class] It's a pattern.

Tammy Rasmussen, Teacher: The kids will look for me, oftentimes for the answer. And I can give them the correct answer every time. But what I want them to do is to talk their way through the problem.

Tammy Rasmussen, Teacher: Whisper to your neighbor what you notice about his.

Tammy Rasmussen, Teacher: We use a word at our school called "discourse." And it's the ability for kids to communicate back and forth between each other, so that they can start to understand that problem, or communicate it to me.

Tammy Rasmussen, Teacher: Do you think it's still a pattern?

Girl 10: No, if you just took this part off, and put the green in the middle and then the blue on the top, it would be a pattern.

Tammy Rasmussen, Teacher: This would be a pattern.

Narrator: Since the new math curriculum was instituted in 2000, math test scores have soared. Now 98 percent of third grade students score at or above grade level. This, despite the fact that the number of students on free and reduced lunch has also climbed to 60 percent.

Mickey Garrison, Principal: When you look at children who have personal life struggles, too often adults make excuses and minimize their ability to learn. And one of the things that I said to the staff is, "Socio-economics does not put a cap on achievement."

Mike Gould, Teacher: So there's about how many possibilities?

Boy 5: One Hundred.

Mike Gould, Teacher: One hundred. Very good. Excellent.

Narrator: To further support math instruction, the district provides a part-time math coach in Master Teacher, Mike Gould.

Mike Gould, Teacher: We've come to the realization that everybody can learn mathematics. And it's not a question of capacity anymore. It's a question of how do you deliver it and how do you allow people to think about it?

Mike Gould, Teacher: You got to hone in on those thinking skills.

Mike Gould, Teacher: I think a perfect example is four-and-a-half divided by one-and-a-half. What's the first thing that comes into your mind?

Interviewer: I have no clue.

Mike Gould, Teacher: Yep, that's the typical answer. Where if you were to hear a story, "If I have four-and-a-half dollars and I'm going to give a dollar-fifty to each of my friends, how many friends do I have?" Well, it's an obvious answer, three. Rather than, "Oh, I can't do this. I never did understand how to flip and invert and multiply and all those other weird things. So it's making the mathematics come alive.

Computer Class: Three negative four.

Mike Gould, Teacher: Everybody has an avenue to learn. We just have to find that right avenue.

Narrator: Everybody includes the students in Steph Neyhart's Alternative Learning Center.

Steph Neyhart, Teacher: The program is for kids who have emotional, behavioral, maybe social disorders that get in the way of their learning in a regular classroom setting.

Steph Neyhart, Teacher: You know, walk up there and stand where you think 100 feet is.

Steph Neyhart, Teacher: And the goal is to help these kids to learn and to be passionate and excited about learning.

Steph Neyhart, Teacher: Well, that's what we're learning here is how to estimate, because it's really hard to estimate.

Narrator: With help from some of their friends...

Teacher's assistant: Think that's 100 feet?

Narrator: ...Mrs. Neyhart's charges set out to measure off the Titanic. All 882-and-a-half feet of it in their own backyard.

Steph Neyhart, Teacher: Slow down, slow down, slow down!

Steph Neyhart, Teacher: We began by researching it and gathering books and looking at pictures and doing some internet studies. And our goal initially was to write about it. But in that process, we came up with all this math!

Steph Neyhart, Teacher: Hey you guys were really close! Your estimates have gotten a lot closer. Go ahead and mark that.

Steph Neyhart, Teacher: We discovered that the Titanic was 882-and-a-half feet long. And we realized we had no idea what that was.

Steph Neyhart, Teacher: We're at 800. So we kind of got to shift gears here, don't we?

Steph Neyhart, Teacher: When you do a project like this, I'm always impressed with the long-term effects of the learning, and how it incorporates so many different kinds of math into it.

Steph Neyhart, Teacher: One, two, three, sixty. One, two, three, seventy.

Steph Neyhart, Teacher: These are also hands-on learners, most of them. And they prefer to be able to be doing things when they're learning. And so it gets them very excited about it.

Steph Neyhart, Teacher: Let's look and see. Are there any cars?

Steph Neyhart, Teacher: They love math.

Steph Neyhart, Teacher: See that white square down there? Can you imagine a ship that is that long? How can a ship that big float? Maybe that's our next investigation.

Mike Gould, Teacher: What we're going to do today is I'm going to give you a problem.

Narrator: Teachers are excited about math here, too.

Mike Gould, Teacher: And so the problem is 133 subtract 87. You have to do it at least three different ways.

Narrator: Ongoing workshops like this one bring teachers of all grade levels together to hone their craft.

Teacher 7: And I knew if I put the 80 with the 100, it was an automatic 20, it was an easy number for me to work with. And then that left me with the seven that I didn't use. If I put it there, it was confusing. So I put it with the 30.

Mike Gould, Teacher: As adults, we were taught that we didn't have to justify why. We just had to get the right answer. And quite often we didn't-- you know, I'm speaking for myself-- I didn't know how to get the right answer. It just showed up.

Teacher 7: So I'm breaking it apart into place values, as well as using common numbers that I understood.

Tammy Rasmussen, Teacher: Our school district did a phenomenal job of adopting a curriculum that allows children to communicate about math. And then they trained us. And they trained us really well.

Teacher 8: Get each one to 100, and then add those two numbers...

Teacher 9: Oh! Teacher 8: And you wanted to know...

Mike Gould, Teacher: Benchmarks.

Tammy Rasmussen, Teacher: Everyone is on the same page. Everyone's really working together really well. And I think that's what it takes.

Tammy Rasmussen, Teacher: You need to think like your kids, because they will come up with that wacky idea, and darn it, it's going to work!

Mike Gould, Teacher: Yeah, absolutely.

Narrator: In addition to wacky solutions to math problems, Fullerton students came up with a unique solution to a problem many schools face.

Mickey Garrison, Principal: Our custodians work hard, but we've been cut in all areas of support. And so I said, "What do you want to do?" And they said, "We could go and clean classrooms." And so they now know how to clean blinds the right way. And clean countertops and clean desks. And I mean, they have it down. And they make a huge contribution.

Narrator: Nearly half of the students here spend their midday recess cleaning desks, scrubbing floors, and raking leaves in exchange for small treats, and a chance to have lunch with the principal.

Mickey Garrison, Principal: You have children who have never had to follow directions and do a careful job. They've never had to listen to another student and actually follow that student's direction. And so they're getting a sense of what a work ethic really looks like on a day-to-day basis in a bigger arena.

Girl 11: Oop, sorry.

Narrator: Whether the problems are big or small, the common denominator for success at Fullerton seems to be "math."

Girl 2: My number is even. So you could just cross off all the odd rows.

Mickey Garrison, Principal: To listen to children actually say, "This is what I was thinking when I solved this problem. And here's why I thought that, and for them to learn how to listen to each other, it goes beyond math."

Tammy Rasmussen, Teacher: You can solve small problems, still have time left to play.

Mickey Garrison, Principal: It really allows them to be great problem solvers. And my personal belief is if you can problem-solve in life, you can do anything you want.

Kindergarten Class: Yeah!

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Video Credits

Produced, Written, and Directed by

  • Ken Ellis

Associate Producer:

  • Amy Erin Borovoy


  • Karen Sutherland

Camera Crew:

  • Todd Sonflieth
  • Ted Cutler
  • Ken Ellis


  • Kris Welch

Original Music:

  • Ed Bogas

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