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Learning the times tables: not always fun, but necessary

The other day, my teenage kids admitted to me that I was right.

Trust me, this doesn’t happen often! So it warrants a quick post.

My kids admitted to me that it turns out that knowing your times tables does really help you in whatever math class you’re taking. That’s because after you learn your times tables, most (if not all) other mathematical concepts use the knowledge of times tables in order to solve problems. It’s not critical to know that seven times eight is fifty-six; you can figure that out when you’re working on a math problem that requires that information. However, knowing how to solve multiplication equations efficiently and correctly will vastly speed up the time it takes to solve almost any math problem. This is not only important in math class, but it’s also important when taking standardized tests like the SAT, ACT, GRE, GMAT… you know the drill. It also comes in handy in physics and other science classes.

So if you’re teaching young kids, make sure that they’re comfortable with numbers, and even though it’s a slog, have them memorize those times tables. Come up with fun ways to do it that don’t simply involve rote memorization (though the rote memorization is also important). Once they can solve multiplication problems in there head, it will help them solve more complex math problems in the future.

Here’s a post with a helpful times tables practice activity.

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Being comfortable with numbers

Creating a math glyphI’ve been creating educational products for students for some time now, and I’ve discovered something about learning mathematics that I think is important. What’s important in learning math isn’t whether or not you’re good at math, it’s whether or not you think you’re good at math.

When students start learning mathematics at a young age, they’re going to either adapt to the concept of using numbers and symbols, or not. If they don’t, this might instill in them a common phenomenon – the “I’m not good at math” phenomenon. Once a student thinks they’re not good at math, it becomes true… they won’t be comfortable around numbers, and fear will keep them from learning to their full potential.

This is why I think it’s better to have students succeed at performing easier math than to challenge them with more difficult math. This is not to say that students who are already good at math should not be challenged. But for those students who fear numbers, giving them easier tasks that they are able to succeed at will bolster their confidence and remove their fear of numbers.

One way to achieve this is to make math fun. Give your students fun math glyphs or puzzles and avoid long, boring, repetitive rote math drills. Whatever you can do to remove their fear of numbers and instill a love of mathematics will help them as they grow as students.

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Viewing a rocket launch

Space Shuttle AtlantisIf you live in Central Florida, or if you ever find yourself in the area, you might consider taking your kids or students to see a rocket launch at the Kennedy Space Center in Merritt Island, Florida. It’d say “It’s a blast!”, but then you’d probably send me hate mail and unfriend me on Facebook.

Last week I visited the Kennedy Space Center with some friends. My friends live and work in the United Kingdom, and as such had not checked out the Kennedy Space Center before. Our family got annual passes some years ago and been to the center several times, but it is always interesting to visit the complex, especially (for me at least) the Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit. On this particular day our kids did not accompany me to visit the center – they had school that day.

When we arrived we learned that there was to be a launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket later that evening. We decided we would take the shuttle to watch the launch. None of us had seen a rocket launch before – they don’t get that sort of thing in the UK, and while I do live here in Florida I had never gotten around to doing it. Maybe it was one of those “it’s always there if I ever want to do it, so no hurry” sorts of things. So after exploring the center we took the shuttle to the special viewing area and sat in the bleachers to watch the launch.

The launch went according to plan (well, okay, it was one minute late) and it was amazing. At first the flames appear, then the clouds of smoke start to billow beneath the rocket. The rocket slowly lifts into the sky, gradually picking up speed as it climbs. Then the noise hits you – a thunderous bass that shakes the bleachers even from far away (which is a good thing – being too close to a rocket launch will result in incineration or death by, believe it or not, ridiculously loud noise). As the rocket pierces the atmosphere it leaves behind a little wisp of cloud before it continues upward into space.

I’m hoping to take our own kids to the Kennedy Space Center to see a rocket launch someday soon. I think it is fascinating to see science in action, and the immense power of a space rocket in flight is breathtaking to experience. It also demonstrates how amazing we as a species have become at manipulating the materials of our world into amazing technology like space rockets, space shuttles, satellites, and telescopes to explore our universe. It also makes me think about STEM teaching, and of finding ways to introduce kids to different technologies by actually experiencing them – like exploring the insides of a computer, riding a high speed train, or watching something being manufactured at a plant. If you can think of any good ideas of this nature, please let me know!

P.S. One interesting site that a tour guide told us about at the Kennedy Space Center is Spaceflight Now. On this site you can see the various rocket launches that are scheduled throughout the world.

Falcon 9 rocket launch

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Making an infographic

Our son was given an interesting assignment in his chemistry class this week. The teacher asked the students in his class to come up with an interesting scientific question. Our son, who took a course on DNA at Duke Tip, has become interested in DNA and genetics, so he chose to explore whether or not using DNA as a means of storing information is a viable option, or if it will become a viable option as costs for such technology come down in the future.

The interesting part of this chemistry assignment was that the teacher tasked the students with creating an infographic, an interesting way of representing information or data in a visual manner. Infographics are engaging and, when done correctly, are much easier and more fun to read and understand than would be a block of text containing the same information.

So our son created his infographic how he chose, placing what he felt was the most pertinent information in an interesting visual manner. While he created it on the computer, he colored it in himself, which I thought was a nice touch. Here is his completed infographic:

DNA storage infographic

I was quite impressed by this assignment, not only because infographics are interesting and very relevant to the way people present important information on the Internet today, but also because by having students create their own infographics, our son’s chemistry teacher was teaching them a new way to organize and display information and data. This is a useful skill, as many jobs require presentation and communication skills, and skills with software tools such as Microsoft PowerPoint, Visio, and Publisher. I think that learning the skill of presenting information in a way other than in standard essay format is very useful.

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Autumn math scene

An autumn math scene for addition and subtractionA few years ago we shared this post, which featured a free printable where students could use their addition skills to add ornaments and other festive decorations to a Christmas tree. We received some positive feedback on that activity. Since the fall season is officially upon us, I’ve created a new math scene for autumn. Kids can use addition and subtraction to add various items to the scene.

I for one am excited about the season – the weather is already getting a bit cooler, and I’m looking forward to fun fall holidays like Halloween and Thanksgiving. We’ve already placed a few Halloween decorations on the lawn outside our house!

Here is the free download for the autumn math scene. I hope you and your students have a wonderful fall season.

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Halloween poem and writing activity

A unique Halloween costumeIt is officially autumn, and October is fast approaching. The leaves are changing color, the air is crisp and cool, and it’s time to break out the jeans and jackets! Unless you live in Florida like we do, that is. Still, the coming of October means that Halloween is going to be on people’s minds. And for good reason – Halloween is a lot of fun.

At school, kids are starting to think about what Halloween costumes they are going to wear, what sorts of Halloween parties or activities they are going to attend, and what they’re going to do on Halloween night. Parents are starting to wonder what sort of candy or treats they’re going to give out this year, where they’re going to get it from, and how much it’s going to cost!

Here is a free download of a poem I wrote with a quick writing activity that you can give to your children or students. There are two versions of this activity; a color version that you can display on your classroom wall or bulletin board, and a black and white version that you can photocopy to hand out to your students.

After your students have finished the writing portion of this activity, you can have a classroom discussion to talk about the answers your students have given. You can find out what your students enjoy about Halloween, October, and the fall season, and what sorts of costumes your kids will be wearing when October 31st finally arrives.

Have fun preparing for Halloween!

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Using colored paper for printables

Here’s a quick and clean teaching tip (because fresh photocopies are clean, not dirty)! It will already be familiar to many teachers, but it can’t hurt to share it anyway. When you are photocopying printables for your students, use a variety of different colored paper!

It is always fun to have the children in your class color the activity they are working on, be it in an interactive notebook, on a printed math worksheet, or on a reading or writing page. However, you don’t always want to have your students spend the time coloring their printables when you have other topics on your teaching agenda for the day. Using colored paper can add a splash of color to your students’ binders or notebooks without your students having to spend any extra effort in order to achieve it.

Below you will find some examples of colored photocopies from our Interactive Grammar Notebook. Note that the colors that we used to print out these copies are light colors… in fact, these colors are light, bright, and flashy. You do not want to use dark colors to print out your printables for obvious reasons – your students will not be able to read the text on the photocopies, especially those students who might have poorer eyesight.

Have fun adding some color to your printables this year!

Interactive notebook foldables

Interactive notebook word activity

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Teaching kids who learn in different ways

Working on an interactive notebookIt’s time for a quick tip!

One of the drawbacks of the education system in North America is that it is not personalized. Teachers will have a class of, say, 30 students, each with his or her own personalities, strengths, and weaknesses. Some students will learn by reading. Others will learn by listening. Still others will learn by doing. It is very hard to teach in a way that encompasses all of these teaching methods.

That said, it can’t hurt to try!

If you can combine a variety of different teaching methods into your daily routine, you can attempt to reach a wide variety of students the way they’d like to be reached. For example, for a math lesson, you can:

  • Write on the board how a particular concept or skill works
  • Explain to the class orally how the concept or skill works, referring to the illustration on the board
  • Give students an interactive exercise, perhaps with coloring, cutting, and pasting, that will help your students “work with” the math concept in a fun and engaging manner
  • Have students work on a few example math problems to get them using the skill, and cementing the concept into their brains

In this manner, students can take advantage of whichever teaching method they most associate with. By teaching using multiple methods, you will hopefully be able to reach a majority of students, each of who learn in different ways.

Happy teaching!

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Keeping a reading log

Keeping track of readingReading is learning. Once you know how to read, the doors swing open to a world full of knowledge, understanding, and entertainment. That’s why it is important to get children reading and improving upon their reading comprehension skills throughout their formative years.

One way to encourage kids to read and to build upon their enjoyment of reading is to keep a reading log. By keeping track of how much they read each day, children can continue to improve their skills in reading and English language arts over the course of their educational careers. Here are some of the reasons why keeping a reading log is beneficial to kids:

Reading logs build a sense of accomplishment

By looking back over reading logs, students can see how many books they have read over a period of time. This gives kids a sense of accomplishment at the various interesting things they have learned through reading and books. Students can go through a wide variety of literature over time, learning about science, history, art, different countries and cultures, and a great many other subjects. They can also experience many different stories of different genres – science fiction and fantasy, drama, young adult – even romance.

Keeping track of reading can help those students who do not feel like strong readers see what they have, over time, achieved with their reading. This can help boost their confidence with reading and keep them going.

Reading logs help track reading improvement over time

By keeping track of the reading levels of the books students read, teachers and parents (as well as the students themselves) can see how students’ individual reading skills have improved over time. While children will start by reading books at, say, the first grade level, the books listed in their reading logs will gradually increase in skill level. In this manner, educators can keep track of a students’ reading level over time – and they can do so without having to resort to standardized testing to see where a student’s skill levels are.

Reading logs help teachers find new books for students

By going through a student’s reading log, teachers and parents can see what sorts of books an individual student enjoys reading. This can help the educator provide other books or reading material that a student might also enjoy, thereby building upon their reading repertoire. If a student is into pirates, for example, teachers can recommend a variety of different fiction and nonfiction books about pirates and the history of piracy. If students are into fantasy books, educators can help those young readers branch out into different works of speculative fiction. All this will lead to more enjoyment of books and reading by young learners.

Reading logs ensure kids are reading

This goes without saying, but by keeping reading logs, students can demonstrate that they are reading a little bit each day, or a certain number of times per week. In this manner, teachers and parents can make sure that students are not falling behind in their reading.

This is especially important over the summer. During the summer months, children who do not read several times per week start to lose some of the reading proficiency that they built up over the past school year. When they arrive back at school in the fall, these students then have to play catch-up. Keeping a reading log and helping parents to keep track of their kids’ reading over the summer holiday helps to prevent this phenomenon.

Reading is a lot of fun, and can open up many new worlds to children of all ages. So get your kids reading and keeping track of the books that they have read!

Keeping a reading log

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Five benefits of Duke TIP Summer Studies Programs

Duke TIP at Davidson CollegeThis summer, our son, a rising eighth grader, went to Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina for a Duke TIP Center for Summer Studies program. In order to qualify for this intensive three-week program he had to attain a certain score on the SAT test – which he did. As he is a big fan of science, he decided to take a course called DNA: Unlocking the Genetic Code.

The Duke TIP Center for Summer Studies (and the less rigorous but still plenty rigorous Duke TIP Academy for Summer Studies) are not cheap programs (though they do offer some scholarships). They also require some coordination – getting your kid to Davidson, or Duke, or Georgia Tech, or wherever the program is taking place can be a difficult proposition. However, if you are able to get your child to a Duke TIP program, here are some of the reasons you might consider doing so:

1. Students will meet other gifted and talented students

When you’re a gifted and talented student, you are a member of a very small group of kids. Most of the kids at your school will likely not also be gifted and talented; as such, you might find it difficult to make friends who have the same interests. By going to Duke TIP, you will meet a lot of other kids who are into similar things as you. Many students who attend Duke TIP feel that they have found “their people”. Our son was surprised (but maybe not so surprised) to learn that about half of the kids he met at Duke TIP knew how to solve the Rubik’s Cube.

2. Students learn independence

When I saw the first photo of our son at Davidson College, I heaved a sigh of relief. “He’s wearing different clothes than we sent him in,” I said. “At least he’s changing his clothes”.

These days, students do not have the independence that kids once had. Where children once biked to the park after school to play with their friends outside, more and more kids these days are staying home, playing video games, chatting online, and generally playing it safe – at least, safer than kids did back in the 70s or 80s. Going to Duke TIP gives your child a controlled, supervised environment where you are nowhere nearby. And they have to survive without you or your guidance for three weeks.

Our son did change his clothes, took showers without being told, chose healthy food to eat in the cafeteria, and generally lived independently for three weeks.

3. Students learn interesting new things

I wasn’t sure what to expect from our son’s DNA program at Duke TIP. However, when he came home, I looked through the notes he took and the handouts he was given during the course. I was amazed. This was some serious stuff! The program went in-depth into the science of DNA, genetics and genes, diseases, and other interesting and complicated material.

When you’re in a class full of gifted and talented students, most students will be able to keep up with rigorous coursework – and enjoy doing so. Teachers and instructors can feel free to pile on the more complicated subjects. And they do.

4. Students are taught without testing

Here’s something that I thought was a positive thing. At Duke TIP, there were no tests, no final exams. Students were not given letter grades. There was no homework after class, so students could participate in the various extracurricular activities (sports, games, dances, and so on) that were offered by the program.

Instead, students were assessed based on their work in the classroom and their cooperation with other students. The lack of testing meant that kids were able to concentrate on learning.

Even better, students were taught according to what the instructor thought was interesting and important. They were not taught with the end goal of taking a test. All too often, courses are structured around making sure students will pass the end of year examination and not that students will learn. I personally feel this is not an effective way to educate children.

5. Students get a taste of life in college

For three weeks, our son lived in a college dorm at Davidson College. He had to deal with the old buildings and the crummy air conditioning. He had to take showers in the public bathrooms. It wasn’t a luxury hotel, to be sure – but it gave him a taste of what it will be like when he finally does go away to college after he has completed high school.

Our son came back from Duke TIP knowing more about what he wanted to take in college, and where he wanted to go (it turns out he wants to go “to a small school – like MIT”). Also, thanks to a teaching assistant who had been through the process of applying for and getting into colleges, he knows more about how he can get himself there. He left his Duke TIP program energized and raring to go. And that’s a great way to be.

Duke TIP logoAs a side note, our son’s TA, who gave our son lots of good information about getting into a good college, was a female science student who did very well in high school and achieved a near-perfect SAT score. Meanwhile, his main instructor was also a successful female scientist. They and the other TAs and instructors served as great role models for the kids.

I hope you have enjoyed learning more about some of the benefits of the Duke TIP Summer Studies programs. If you have any questions, be sure to leave them in the comments.