By Brooke McCoy
Think back to what second grade math is like.
“You probably remember worksheets, memorization of facts and only one way to solve a particular problem,” said Stephanie Smith, a teacher education professor at BYU.
Smith volunteers teaching math at Canyon Crest Elementary, in Provo, in a research and community service project that also assists her in her BYU teaching responsibility.
Her students look like regular second graders with missing teeth and swimming suits under their Osh Kosh B’gosh clothes, but they are already learning to understand negative numbers and multiplication.
“People ask me, ‘Is this class advanced?’ No, but these students are having experiences that help them understand mathematics, and more children can understand these ideas much earlier if they have the appropriate ideas,” Smith said.
Smith is conducting a six-year-long study that will track the same students’ math education. This is her second year, so Smith will be their math teacher for the next four years.
Meeting this year in a corner of the library, Smith’s class sits four or five to a table. Each table is equipped with tools such as blocks and counting frames that students can use to support their problem solving.
Some of her students are still using physical models, while others have invented other means for computing solutions.
Smith doesn’t tell them what to do.
“When I was observing these kids during first grade, they developed foundations for multiplication and factoring,” said Smith’s daughter, Debra Smith, a senior from Provo, majoring in elementary education.
“Now they have ways of writing number sentences with multiplication. Last year they also had a debate about whether zero was a number.”
One of Smith’s second graders, Romy, said that it was fun to figure out mathematics.
“It’s really fun to see other people’s strategies that are like yours,” said Michon, a second grader in Smith’s class.
The majority of the class agreed that math was easy. The approach empowers the children with flexibility, and understanding that they demonstrate through their various representations, Smith said.
The results of this longitudinal study will provide another view of what it means to know and understand mathematics, Smith said.
“We are really going to make some waves,” she said.
Smith said that this is the first study of its length that will watch children, not the teachers.
But her students score about the same as their peers on Utah State exams.
The exams give a picture of a child’s ability and understanding of mathematics, but not the whole picture, Smith said.
Because the emphasis is on performance, teachers are going to teach their students the method that will help them score high on the test, said Ray Morgan, principal of Canyon Crest Elementary.
Provo School District has adopted a mathematics curriculum that allows teachers to teach Smith’s new reform method with the traditional method, Smith said.
“The goal is to integrate it in the whole state,” she said.
Tuesday, May 23, Smith’s students last day of class, ended with a mathematics scavenger hunt.
“The students are being taught by someone who’s very knowledgeable in her field and also teaching in her field,” Morgan said.
“Parents were wary because it was new. I told them if we wanted to make progress we can’t always do things the same way,” he said.
The parents are now some of her biggest supporters, Smith said.