Thursday, July 12, 2001
Fun in the sum
Here’s the problem: How to keep kids from forgetting math skills during break
By Joshua Benton
When Lawrence Seidman’s two children were on summer break from elementary school, he could almost see their math skills slipping away.
“They were losing some every day, and it was frustrating to watch,” said Dr. Seidman, an economics professor at the University of Delaware.
He thought about his options: Could he make them take summer math classes? What about giving them some math homework in July? But in the end, he couldn’t bring himself to do it. “It’s not easy being the only ogre parent around. I didn’t push it too far.”
What Dr. Seidman did do was co-write a study on the subject. He found that the summer break was one of the biggest reasons American students trail their international peers in math knowledge. Students forget so much math over the break that it can take months to recover lost ground.
Other studies have shown that students forget math more quickly than any other subject, and that opportunities for learning math in the summer are almost nonexistent for many children. Some manage to go the entire break barely even thinking about numbers.
“We have developed this acceptance of young people forgetting math content over the summer,” said Dr. Lee Stiff, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. “When the new year begins, we just assume that something has been lost over time.”
Some teachers are trying their own ways of reversing the regression.
Felicity Ross, who teaches math at Robert Poole Middle School in Hampden, Md., has started a summer homework program. (Many Japanese schools already feature them.)
For six straight weeks, she mails her incoming students packets of problems to complete and return. To eliminate excuses, she even includes self-addressed, stamped envelopes in which to return their homework.
“A lot of the kids really have downtime during the summer – they’re bored,” she said. “They weren’t very excited about it at first, but they did it.”
The result: What had previously been a month’s worth of review in the fall was reduced to just two or three days.
The math loss is particularly pronounced in earlier grades, when students are learning more through repetition – such as memorizing multiplication tables – and less through mastering concepts. (For the same reason, spelling is the language skill that most often declines over the summer months.)
“The kids who are just memorizing things, they have a tougher time,” said Linda Antinone, a math teacher at Paschal High School in Fort Worth. “If you teach math as a series of things to memorize instead of a series of things to understand, you’d expect kids to forget more.”
When it comes to reading, children at least have easy access to books through libraries and bookstores. Parents know enough about the importance of literacy to make sure their kids read over the break. Teachers often assign summer reading lists to their students. Math doesn’t have those advantages.
“It’s easy to fit in reading programs – go to your library, check out a book,” Dr. Stiff said. “We don’t have an existing infrastructure that would allow us to say go to your ‘blank’ and do your math.”
It doesn’t help that many parents are insecure in their own math skills – and thus sometimes lack the confidence to play math teacher, he said.
Textbook manufacturers are recognizing that there is a market for summer math instruction. Houghton Mifflin publishes a series of “Summer Smarts” workbooks designed to reinforce skills taught the previous year, and other companies market similar publications directly to parents.
Giving up time
Other math teachers give up parts of their summers to help students who might be lagging or who want to excel. Max Warshauer, a professor at Southwest Texas State University, runs MathWorks camps in cities throughout South Texas. This year, they taught more than 2,500 students, many of them poor, in pre-algebra skills.
“All of these kids have much more ability than they’re normally using.” Dr. Warshauer said. “A lot of them aren’t being challenged and pushed without a program like ours.”
Dr. Herb Weinstein, who teaches math at The Hockaday School in Dallas, is one of the leaders of Math Magic, a weeklong summer course for elementary school students available through Southern Methodist University. Dr. Weinstein said it’s important to keep summer math lighthearted if you hope to keep kids’ attention.
“You have to realize you’re trying to get them excited about math during their vacation time,” he said. “So you have to make it fun, use a lot of humor, show how things apply in the real world.”
“At first, some of the kids are just there because their parents made them be there,” said his son Aaron Weinstein, a Tufts University student who is helping him teach Math Magic this summer. “But by the end of the course, even the unenthusiastic kids are excited about math.””You have to realize you’re trying to get them excited about math during their vacation time. So you have to make it fun.”