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.
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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

Comments (13) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

the children ae really smart. (:
i am so amazed by how they learn so quickly. and are so healthy.

Karla's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Please help me I am so desperate my son is having trouble in math, his teacher says that he is not improvment at school, please help me.

Diane Demee-Benoit's picture
Diane Demee-Benoit
Former Director of Outreach at Edutopia

Staff comment:


Did your child's teacher have any suggestions for how you might be able to help him learn math?

If you live near a science center or children's museum, check if they have any classes or workshops that teach math concepts in a way that is fun and engaging for kids.

Additionally, there are some Web sites like (with free online games for kids that teach math skills) and that have ideas for making math fun to learn.

Remember, as a parent, you are your child's first teacher. By posting your comment on this site, you're showing that you are willing to go the extra step. Find resources so that you can be a math teacher!

Aurietha Hoesing's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The principal in the video could not have been more correct when she stated that "To often adults make excuses and minimize students ability to learn". I believe that it is excuses on our ability to teach or think outside the old school box. How soon can I get information on Math Magic to use with my students. I believe that students who live in poor communities are just as able as any other students. They have just not had the enrichment opportunities or the mathematical thinking presented to them. It's time we remove our blinders as we teach.

Diane Demee-Benoit's picture
Diane Demee-Benoit
Former Director of Outreach at Edutopia

Staff comment:

For more information about this school's math curricula, see's interview with the school's principal.

The companion article to this video also provides more context; see "More to this story," above. You can also contact the school directly and ask questions!

jeana's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The topic of math is an interest of mine. I watched the video of Fullerton school and I enjoyed how much the children enjoyed math. I am interested in what other math programs and philosophies you have to share with me. My school district is currently looking into a math program and interested in any feedback.

Roxane Dyk's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a Math Specialist currently working with a math initiative in South Dakota called "SD Counts". We are beginning our 3rd year of training using the CGI approach to learning. In my ESA (Educational Service Agency) I have 18 Math Leaders each from a different school district who I work with and train on a monthly basis, coaching in also included. I know I have teachers who previously to taught and showed the basic algorithim and the steps for solving a problem that would NEVER go back to this method after their training in CGI and using the problem-solving approach in their classrooms. Year 1, our focus was Number Sense and Operations, Year 2 was Algebraic Thinking and Year 3 will be Geometry.

The success stories of my Math Leaders are huge. If you would like to visit more about the model we have established in South Dakota, I would love to visit.

We now will have two years of test data. Year 1 showed 5th grade students who were in a classroom where the teacher had implemented CGI in the classroom and were Math Leaders were a little higher than those that did not have teachers who were participating in SD Counts.

Online Degree Information's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

We need the top administration official to hear and appreciate how badly the education organization is broken down in some parts of the globe. Education is a great stepping stone in finish shortage once and for all, by enable people to work and be industrious members of society. It's time to teach people about binary numbers, how to stay healthy by hand wash, and other basic fundamentals.

J's picture

I wish I had these types of teachers, as when I was in gr.3 neither my gr.8 educated father nor my gr.7 educated mother could help me understand what 3/4 divided by 1/5 was, so how would you teach this like the 4.5 / 1.5 example taught as transferring it into a money problem which most children from economically disadvantaged lower middle class families like mine had to 'deal'
with but usually fought over whether or not to buy desert or not, my 'mother' usually blaming my father for wanting us but not 'wanting' to "PAY for having had us !"

Ryan Spencer's picture
Ryan Spencer
6th grade math teacher in Anoka, Minnesota.

I loved the principal's comment about Math "not really being a subject," but more of a way to reason and solve problems. You can't argue with their results, 98% of students scoring at or above grade level is an amazing success rate. Best part of the video had to be the kid who says his favorite class is soccer, before that I was skeptical about this being a real school. Just kidding.

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