Three years ago, Betsy Cahill of Liberty School sat down with Dr. Bill Kendall and other elementary math specialists to discuss the recent revisions to the Mathematics Curriculum Frameworks. The revision overturned some previously held beliefs that children focus on the abstract nature of math. Instead, it called for a return to the need for students to have automaticity and mastery of math facts by the end of fifth grade.
For many years, the surefire way of learning math facts was by pure memorization. One times one is one, two times ten is twenty, three times four, etc. Then came a time "when it was believed that children should learn math facts innately as opposed to by rote,” Liberty principal Dr. Joyce Radiches said in a recent interview.
Dr. Radiches recalled that there was a 10-year period when schools tried to teach math without including the knowledge that sometimes math facts just have to be memorized. “We’ve come to a middle ground now,” she said.
Cahill left that meeting three years ago with a name for a program that had yet to take shape – Families and Classes Together Succeed, or FACTS. Elementary teachers are faced with the huge task of promoting both fact-based math knowledge and teaching to the math curriculum. Since teacher’s days are already so busy, Cahill recalled thinking that “if we could somehow include the family it could be a really good fit.”
Dr. Radiches added, “the pendulum has swung and they are doing more and more in the classroom with the extra reinforcement at home.”
To encourage participation in the program from students and families, Liberty places a large emphasis on fun. Each week, students are sent home with a math packet in which they complete a different set of problems every day. For their efforts, students earn colorful plastic tokens when they return the packet to school. A simple reward, but the students are motivated by them.
“They love earning the tokens” Dr. Radiches said.
The tokens are then proudly displayed on a chain for all too see. According to the principal, students are competitive with the tokens but not so much that they lose sight of the program. “They are very proud of the one or two kids who might have more than everyone else,” she said.
Students also have the chance to earn special Mathlete status by taking weekly timed math fact quizzes on a website called ThatQuiz.org. If a student scores 90 percent or higher on the three-minute quiz at least once a month, they are awarded with a certificate.
Both Cahill and Dr. Radiches have found that the students “are challenging themselves” to do well on the quiz and are “excited and enthusiastic” when they arrive at their weekly media class with Mrs. Sharkey-Jordan, who administers the test during the first few minutes of class.
Perhaps the real success of the program takes root in the name itself. By incorporating family involvement, “each family sets up the best practice situation for that child," Cahill said. “Some are doing flashcards in the backseat of the car and others are going online to the recommended sites... I always try to emphasize it should be fun. I never want to imagine that it’s a crying time."
Just three years into the program it is difficult to determine if there has been a measurable difference in student’s math skills.
“It’s hard to say for sure, but we have been doing well with the MCAS,” Cahill said. The staff at Liberty are also using the quiz results to identify where progress is being made and to identify if a student needs extra help.
“The technological piece is relatively new for us,” Dr. Radiches said, adding that the school is sensitive to the fact that not all children have a computer with Internet access at home.
For those students, Cahill is quick to offer another tool and also allows extra computer time at school. For instance, fifth grade students who are normally expected to complete the test at home are given the opportunity to complete the test at school during free time.
Cahill is hesitant to take full responsibility for the success of the program. She said it has been a school-wide effort; whether it’s the Media Teacher administering tests, encouraging support from Dr. Radiches, classroom teachers analyzing the test results, or motivating the students through the use of music.
Third grade teacher Ms. Sano wrote the lyrics to the tune of I’ve Got a Feeling by the Black Eyed Peas and a local band recorded it. The song is played at the kickoff assembly for the program and the students love it.
A longtime employee of Braintree Public Schools, Cahill has taken quite a journey to where she is now. She spent 12 years teaching English at , followed by a year at the middle school level. It wasn’t until she was at the , where she spent 12 years as a fifth grade teacher, that she got her first real taste of teaching math.
“So much of math is language-oriented, whether it’s having to decipher word problems or simply reading and understanding the directions,” Cahill said. She got hooked and started taking graduate-level classes and then applied for the Math Specialist job. The rest is history.
Dr. Radiches said that Cahill’s unique teaching background allows her to better connect with the kids, especially for those children where math may be a struggle but language comes more easily.
Because writing is now such an integral part of the math MCAS test, Cahill said that a lot of strategies from English can be used. For instance, much of the MCAS testing for math requires students to write about their answers. They need to be able to explain how they arrived at an answer in addition to showing their work and having the correct calculations.
“Children need so many attack skills with MCAS,” Cahill said. For instance, students need to determine what the question is really asking before they set out to do the math.
Cahill’s English background is also evident in the songs and poems she writes to help motivate her students. In her poem Tis a Month before Summer, Mrs. Cahill writes: “The children of Liberty School have proven one special thing: As a group of Mathletes they can do anything!”
“If we make the math fun and get the children excited that’s half the battle,” Cahill said.