Transforming Math for Elementary Ed

Oct 7, 2009 by

After several months alone to think about why education has become so transactional, I decided that I’d have to “walk the walk” and not just “talk the talk” and so I set about revamping my own classes.  For several weeks, my brain processors whirled while I tried to figure out how to make courses that have a highly structured and full curricula into courses that are transformational and revolve around learning.  Eventually, I hit upon the solution: Learning Projects.  Each student in Math for Elementary Teachers (MathET, as I like to call it) has to do five learning projects during the semester:

  1. Writing a Learning Blog
  2. Building a Mindmap
  3. Giving an Inquiry-Based Learning Presentation in class
  4. Creating a Video for the Internet
  5. Creating a Digital Portfolio to house their projects (this will be done by everyone last)

We cover four “units” in MathET, and each student completes the first four learning projects in a random pre-assigned order (I made a chart of all project assignments at the beginning of the semester).  This means that at any time, 25% of the students are blogging, 25% are building mindmaps, 25% are working on a 10-minute presentation for class, and 25% are building a video on a specific topic.  Projects are due two days before the unit exam so that everyone can learn from reading and clicking through each others’ projects.

No lies.  This required a large amount of time to get a new syllabus in place, verbage about privacy and appropriate computer use, tutorials on the LMS, and grading rubrics (and I already knew how to use all the technology).  I had to move one hour of class (4 hours each week) into a computer lab (and lab time is as precious as gold on our campus).   I set up an RSS feed (via a class netvibes page) to put news about math and teaching at the fingertips of the students.   I have to create a page to hold all the RSS feeds from student blogs, videos, and mindmaps (see the Unit 1 Tab of the class netvibes page).  This project also required a pep talk on the first day of class to explain why I was requiring that students use technology as they learned (because it will help them find jobs and provide them with valuable ways to teach and learn).  It was a bit of a shock, especially to those students who had barely touched a computer before.


However, the work was 100% worth it (maybe even 200% worth it).  We have never (and I mean never) had so much fun with a class before.  Every day of class I automatically get fresh learning assessments from the students who are blogging or mapping out the concepts we’ve learned.  The students really enjoy participating in each others’ active presentations and gain lots of fresh ideas about how to incorporate different teaching strategies into their own classes.  It’s also fun to watch the students get more brave (technology-wise) as the semester progresses – I really can’t wait to see what these projects look like by the end of the semester!  As I walk through the lab or peek at laptop screens before class,  I see students getting sucked in to reading blog posts and news articles that they might not otherwise even see (e.g. Math in the News).  I see them playing with interactive manipulatives from NLVM, and getting hooked on logic puzzles.

Because every single project is organized around learning, they all enhance the students’ understanding of the material.   How do I know?   There were no failing grades on the first test.  Students write and talk about how learning Venn Diagrams is “awesome” and how learning base-5 arithmetic is “tricky but cool” … it’s like math has gotten turned upside-down. What was once scary and difficult is now fun and interesting (maybe still difficult, but more tolerable now).  I think it may even be possible that students are now more likely to study for the exams because they actually enjoy learning the material (this is just conjecture on my part).

There are lots more details to share about how, exactly, I’ve pulled this off (release forms, privacy issues, etc), but for now I’d like to share a few of the best projects from Round 1 of the Student Learning Projects.  I hope that by the end of the semester, every one of my students will have found a project where they had a chance to shine the best and brightest!

Best Student Web-based Projects: Round 1

Honestly, I wish I had recorded more of the student IBL presentations, because many of them have been clever and well-designed.

In addition to the projects, we’ve found ourselves doing some other fun things:


One more thing I’ve changed in all my classes this semester, I try to begin every class by asking students what they’ve learned in their other classes (an acknowledgment that these things are important too).  The only way to refocus education on learning is to make sure it actually is the focus.

Learning Projects Round 2 are already well underway!  Students can see each others’ blogs and mindmaps in progress from day one of the unit.  This (hopefully) encourages them to explore and read more about each topic as they follow links to resources and read about how math has been applied.  Stay tuned for more in our little learning experiment.


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  1. Sue

    Maria, this is great! Thanks. I’ll be back looking at this next summer as I get ready for classes in the fall.

  2. Maria, can you tell me a little bit about who the audience is? I’m *guessing* that they aren’t future math majors, but people who are taking the class as a requirement for getting elementary ed certification. (If so, I’d guess that a fair number of them enter the class nervous about math.) Is this generally their first math class post-high school? And are they mostly 18-20 or mostly older? And is this a 3-credit or 4-credit class?

    I’m wondering how your population/course compares to ours. I think what you’re describing sounds really wonderful. 🙂

    • These students are working on a degree in Elementary Education (K-6). They are almost all nervous about math. It is a mixture of Freshman who are straight out of high school and Sophomores who have taken the Algebra sequence (up to Intermediate Algebra) at the college. The majority are 18-24, but a couple are older students returning to school (with children at home). It’s a 4-credit class, so we do 3 hours in the classroom and 1 in the lab each week. I’m doing it hybrid next semester – the lab time will just move “online” and one hour of class time will move online as well.

      I’m doing a different version of this in Calculus – more to come on that later.

  3. Thanks, Maria, for these ideas. I’m revamping this course at our college and will be using many of your ideas. BTW, have you checked out at Kevin Jarrety’s blog on tech in elementary school?

    I use for finding out stuff for my kids.

  4. deb

    Maria, thank you soooo much.

    I teach a similar class at Washtenaw Community College in Michigan. I have been working for a long time trying to integrate more technology into my class. I came across your site this summer and it has been instrumental in giving me direction.

    I very much appreciate this post as well. I will try to modify my winter class similarly. I have to plan my approach to explain “why”, I want to use the computer time.

    This week we covered mental math. Here is a fun example of Mental Math in the classroom . It is an NPR interview from 2002, everyone seems to love this story.

    Again, a HUGE THANK YOU! You have had a great in my classes. I am a BIG FAN!


  5. deb

    Sorry, wrong link…
    Speed Rules Math

  6. very impressive stuff. spotted at “math teachers at play”.


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