Math for multiple intelligences

by Gretchen Buher with David J. Walbert

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With parent communication, the more proactive you are, the better. The more you explain to parents up front, the less defensive work you’ll have to do. As educators, if we want parents to be on our team, we must initiate, define, and practice what we want that relationship to look like.

To start that relationship off on the right foot, I schedule a meeting for parents of students in my classes at the very beginning of the year, so that they will know what to expect from me and how they can help their children. Some of what we discuss is specific to eighth grade algebra or pre-algebra, but much of it would be useful to teachers at any grade level or subject area.

Helping parents anticipate what’s coming

For eighth-grade algebra: I want to explain to parents of algebra students that this year will be very different for their children. Up until now, through pre-algebra, their children have been able to get along by relying on past knowledge and memorizing information for a test. But algebra requires abstract thinking and involves problems that may not have concrete solutions. There is less repetition of previously learned skills than students are used to. Throughout elementary and middle school, they’ve seen similar things again and again — multiplication, fractions, and so on. During the Algebra I course, much of the material and its applications are new. Students don’t have time to relax, and they’re going to have to struggle with the material.

I remind the parents that it’s o.k. for your kids to struggle. What’s important is how we respond to them — not by talking about whose fault it is that they’re struggling, but by finding strategies for getting them through it. It matters less where the students start the year than where they end up.

For eighth-grade pre-algebra: I find that by the time students taking pre-algebra enter eighth grade, they have realized that they don’t seem to grasp math concepts really well. Even though pre-algebra is the “normal” class to take as an eighth grader, the presence of an advanced track sometimes makes these students feel inferior. Morale is often low and the methods their teachers have used haven’t always held their attention; they haven’t mastered the concepts. Teaching eighth grade pre-algebra through problem solving is different from what most kids have seen before. The concepts might seem fresh with a different approach, but we are still mastering the same concepts as in the past. As with parents of algebra students, it’s important to communicate clear expectations of success and struggle. It’s still o.k. for your kids to struggle; we must teach them how to withstand and overcome the challenges they face.

Helping parents help their kids

Because there’s so much content to cover in both algebra and pre-algebra, I tell parents that while we introduce new concepts in school, the students have to practice those concepts at home. Making sure that happens is the responsibility of the parents and students. For some parents, that means setting up a time and place at home where their kids can do schoolwork. For others, it means enrolling their kids in an after school program that provides a quiet place for them to do their homework. I also encourage students to come in before or after school to ask questions about the concepts they’re struggling to understand.

I feel that it is important for parents to have resources available to them. I have suggested book that give parents a crash course in algebra or pre-algebra, if needed. Many textbook companies provide online tutorials that parents can access. I also give parents an informational brochure at the beginning of the year with tips on how to make the year more successful for the students. I include places where they can find current information for my classes (websites, shared folders, emails announcing tests and due dates for projects) and expectations for class work, projects, homework and s o on.

Students have a brochure for each unit listing each skill we will address, what the practical application is, and how to find resources for extra help if needed. I also give parents a calendar or syllabus showing what we’ll cover and when, and then follow it. I build in make-up days in case something happens — an assembly, for example — so that I won’t fall behind. And I post the core skill or my class notes either on the Web or in my classroom so that if a student is absent, he or she can still obtain the information easily. I try to keep a copy of my current brochure, the notes, homework, and projects for each unit on my website for both students and parents. This way, parents understand where we are at any given time and can help their children, and they don’t get frustrated or angry when their children come home with surprise homework.

Telling parents good things

Just as important as clearly communicating expectations is finding positive things to say about each student. My goal is to make one positive parent contact every quarter. While this expectation seems high (especially when I have about a hundred students), I find that it is an important factor in my success and happiness. When I can call parents to compliment them on something their children have done, they are so appreciative. So many great working relationships with my student’s parents have been built based on my initiation of a positive phone call or note home. The positive efforts also help me focus on great things that are happening with my students, not the few negative things.

In my experience, the more ongoing, positive communication I have with parents, the more they have been willing to work with me — even parents who might not be open to this right away. I have also found that parents are less likely to be shocked or to react negatively by an incident at school if they have a sense of the pace of the course, what their child is learning and my evident concern for the well-being of each of my students.

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