"There's Nothing Wrong with the Kids"

That’s a quote from a specific math teacher trainer but I used to be surprised by how often I heard it. Now, I’m no longer surprised. I’ve been attending workshops that Reggae Math Foundation has been putting on to show teachers in Jamaica strategies that are tried and proven here in the US to reach students who have for various reasons not been learning math. It is very clear that any person who does not think that the majority of children cannot learn has never been exposed to these kinds of workshops.

The workshops involve active learning, activities are done in collaboration with other learners, with discussions and even arguments occurring in what is replica of a math class that one could with students. This type of class is quite different from the ones I took throughout my education career. It is a conceptually different approach to teaching math. This type of approach creates a different type of learner than ones the students our system creates now. It creates the type of citizen that we need to effect change in Jamaica.

Please consider supporting us by utilizing your birthday on Facebook to support our teacher training work in Jamaica, using smile.amazon.com and selecting Reggae Math Foundation as your charity if you already shop at Amazon, or directly purchasing math manipulatives, such as the multi-link cubes pictured here. Feel free to email me at info@reggaemath.org for further information.

Multi-link cubes

Multi-link cubes

All Our Children Can Learn Math Deeply

In 2015, when I seriously started to look at how a small group of interested persons (including myself) could assist children learning math in Jamaica, I had the INCORRECT impression that there did not exist widespread knowledge of how to reach students who were not being reached. Fast forward to today and the thing I find most shocking is the vast number of persons who know how to reach these students and who repeatedly say “There’s nothing wrong with the kids” and then on the other hand, the vast number of persons who believe that these students cannot learn.

If you are an educator who believes that students cannot learn, I highly recommend the first part (roughly 100 pages) of the series Teaching Student-Centered Mathematics (Level 1: Pre-K to Grade 2 ) by John Van de Walle. I read this book in February of this year and have had a mental transformation in terms of what is possible, not only with my students, but with the educators throughout our system.

These pages talk about why we want to teach children in a student-centered way and is relevant not only to math teachers, but all teachers of all levels.

Trusting Teachers and Supporting them to Support our Children

I have been teaching since 1996 when I had a brief stint as a math teacher at Wolmer's Boys school. I met wonderful teachers and students and looking back, there is a whole lot I would do differently if I went back to teaching high school math having learned many things since then about how to help weaker students.

This Spring, I read the book Teaching Student-Centered Mathematics Developmentally Appropriate Instruction for Pre-K-2 (Volume 1) by John A. Van de Walle. As many years as I have been teaching and as much as I've improved, this book has transformed my knowledge of what is possible for our weaker students and is causing me to question more than before what we are doing in education.  I would encourage any educator, not just math teachers to read the first 100+ pages of this book.

While at Wolmer's Boys High and when over the years I have received students who lack a very basic math skill needed to teach economics or statistics based courses, I have wondered why it is that some student don't understand foundation concepts and have been at a loss to teach them in a way that they retain these fundamental skills.  After reading the text above and the subsequent level (Grade 3-5), I am now more convinced than ever, as are many math education and education researchers, that many of our students are really quite brilliant and that as the Ministry of Education says "Every Child Can Learn".

This book was recommended to me by a Kindergarten teacher at a school that is above the 90th percentile in math in New York City. I subsequently discovered that both Dr Dionne Cross Francis and Dr Tamara Pearson have used this book when teaching teachers how to teach math. This book explained in great depth, the reason why math educators advocate for these new ways of teaching math. At first it didn't make sense to me even though I had heard the theories. I have now bought the KoolAid. After reading this book, I have changed the way I do math and do much more mental math.

The second eye-opening feature of this book was that it tells for each topic the misconceptions that students develop in these Pre-K-2 grades, what you see them write, and how to help students overcome these misconceptions. I teach Statistics at the College level and it was shocking to finally see an explanation for some of the weird things my students would do on their exams. Some of my students were writing in ways that displayed misconceptions developed by Grade 2 and these misconceptions had never been fixed. I was grateful to see this because I have finally gotten tools to help them overcome these gaps in a sustainable way.

Our very dedicated teachers want to support our children, as did I. Some of our teachers do not have the latest knowledge to remediate gaps and they need our support to develop themselves into better teachers. Professional Development is not a sexy thing that a company can put its name on so people can see it for years to come. It is, however, a vital part of any real effort to address what is happening in math education for the majority of Jamaican students. Let's support our teachers and give them what they need to get our very smart students to fulfill their potential.

Dr. Linda Bailey-McWeeney is the Executive Director of Reggae Math Foundation, an economist, and an educator. She is currently an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Economics at College of Staten Island, City University of New York and has been an Assistant Professor at Baruch College, City University of New York, Yeshiva University, and Wagner College. She has a Ph.D. in Economics from Michigan State University.

Building on Foundations

One recurring problem that teachers (including myself) face is that of students who do not have solid foundations on material that came before. When students do not have appropriate foundations for the course material, they do not have the same access as other students.

In my college teaching, I have encountered students who cannot multiply by 0, who cannot tell which number is larger when given two numbers involving decimal forms of fractions, who cannot tell if 0 is in an interval, who do not appropriately use equal signs, cannot seamlessly convert a decimal form of a fraction to a percentage, and so on... I have encountered many other educators who feel the same and who then try to teach both the foundation and the curriculum that they are charged with teaching.

It is very heartening to see programs and teachers who successfully fill in the gaps of these students while teaching the curriculum they are supposed to teach. I have encountered many such educators (including volunteer peer tutors). Many of our students and teachers are not, however, navigating successfully the filling in of foundation gaps and the current curriculum. In Jamaica, over 50% are not.

In my opinion, it has not been a successful strategy for too many students to leave both the filling in of foundation gaps and the teaching of current material. There must be more support given to teachers who have large proportions of their student bodies coming in without these gaps. Part of the solution is professional development which imparts strategies of programs and teachers who have successfully navigated such situations as well as the videos that we are currently working on. Another part of the solution could be students who already understand the material. Research has shown a positive effect of volunteering and tutoring other students on the academic performance of the volunteers. This is a win-win scenario for both students.

We welcome other suggestions on how to improve education, in particular math education, for the large proportion of students and teachers who are in need of support.

Dr. Linda Bailey-McWeeney is the Executive Director of Reggae Math Foundation, an economist, and an educator. She is currently an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Economics at College of Staten Island, City University of New York and has been an Assistant Professor at Baruch College, City University of New York, Yeshiva University, and Wagner College. She has a Ph.D. in Economics from Michigan State University.

Discussions of how to move forward in Math: Thing 3 Mentorship Programs

While reading an article on CUNY's SEEK program (here), I was reminded about several discussions I have had recently about math and education and what is needed for low-income children to succeed.  First, The Math Club's Jefrey Blake worked with students from a soccer program that he realized weren't doing well in math. He found as have many others that students seemed to need a mentor more than a math tutor. Students were absolutely capable of learning math with some guidance. Similarly, Future Leaders of Jamaica includes not just financial aid, but mentorship as part of their scholarship program.

Why is mentorship important? Imagine a child with a parent who prioritizes education. Ben Carson's mother was not educated, but made sure that he put his academic work in. If students get financial aid, but make poor decisions that get them off-track, mentors can work with them to make better decisions playing the cards they are dealt. Not all parents are able to do this.

One issue in trying to introduce mentorship programs will be that not enough adults volunteer for such programs. Rather than throw their hands in the air, many schools are using other students who have high achievement to reach other students. Even at the elementary or primary school levels with children below age 11, there are programs that successfully improve academic outcomes by using peer-tutoring and mentorship.

In addition to helping students who are not doing well academically, volunteer academic tutoring and group work has been shown to improve the academic performance of the volunteers and high performing students as well as those being helped. This is a WIN-WIN. Let's utilize all our resources to move forward in Math!

Dr. Linda Bailey-McWeeney is the Executive Director of Reggae Math Foundation, an economist, and an educator. She is currently an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Economics at College of Staten Island, City University of New York and has been an Assistant Professor at Baruch College, City University of New York, Yeshiva University, and Wagner College. She has a Ph.D. in Economics from Michigan State University.

Discussions of how to move forward in math: Thing 2

"You have to start with Professional Development". That is a quote from a former Jamaican math teacher. In my discussions with anyone interested in speaking about math education, it is always shocking to me that the there are so many people who say things like "I know a teacher in Clarendon. All her students do well" or "There was this one teacher I had. When I had that teacher, I understood math. When I didn't have that teacher, I didn't understand math." Similarly, "students previously thought to be dunce" excelled after using this method.

How, for example, was Richard James able to get a Wayne Wright, a student with repeated math failures, to obtain a pass? (click here for that Gleaner story).

There are strategies and tactics being used with students who have not performed well in the past. These strategies are succeeding and we need to support the sharing of these activities. One way to help us share the work of successful programs through professional development of teachers in Jamaica is to contribute through our Donate page as we work to share what works. If you already shop at amazon.com, please consider switching to https://smile.amazon.com/ch/81-3445051 and Amazon will contribute part of qualifying purchase prices to Reggae Math Foundation AT NO COST TO YOU! You can register at any time and amazon.com will remind you to switch to smile.amazon.com when you are ready to make a purchase.

Dr. Linda Bailey-McWeeney is the Executive Director of Reggae Math Foundation, an economist, and an educator. She is currently an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Economics at College of Staten Island, City University of New York and has been an Assistant Professor at Baruch College, City University of New York, Yeshiva University, and Wagner College. She has a Ph.D. in Economics from Michigan State University.

Discussions about how to move forward with math: Thing 1

Since 2015, I've been having discussions with anyone interested in math education. There are many people in education who believe that anyone can learn math deeply and well, if they are taught or guided in a particular way. Since most people are not excelling in math, the question is how do we,  who are interested in elevating math learning and appreciation, work together to reach those students who are currently not being reached.  From these discussions since 2015, I wanted to share a few things that have come out in a series of posts.

Thing 1:

While there are many wonderful hardworking teachers in the school system who go above and beyond, too many students enter high schools without the proper foundation. It is, therefore, imperative that the high school teachers are trained to address this deficit among older children, if we are to properly educate those entering the labor force and post-high school educational institutions. Focusing on high-quality early childhood and primary education as the Jamaican government and private sector is currently doing is an essential component of a long-run efficient solution. There are students who enter high school unable to add and subtract. Since addition and subtraction is a foundation upon which the rest of math is built, without it, there is a superficiality of learning that occurs. Teachers are being asked to cover more advanced topics when all the students in the room do not have the proper foundation.  Let's build a system to support students in learning the foundations of math if they don't have it. 

Dr. Linda Bailey-McWeeney is the Executive Director of Reggae Math Foundation, an economist, and an educator. She has been an Assistant Professor at Baruch College, City University of New York and an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Economics at College of Staten Island, City University of New York, Yeshiva University, and Wagner College. She has a Ph.D. in Economics from Michigan State University.

Thank you!

Reggae Math Foundation would like to thank all those who supported our Summer 2017campaign, whether by donating or sharing the story.

We have been happily filming Mr. Kippy Chin's classes on imaginary numbers.

Details about imaginary numbers can be found here at Math is Fun.

We look forward to sharing these classes with people who did not realize there was such a thing.