Teachers, students learn from 'money games'

Sue Larson, at the table in black at left, teaches kindergarten students a math game with dice and coins that introduces place value at Lake Valley Elementary School in December. Kindergarten and first-grade teachers from district schools watch and learn how to teach inductive math activities through Larson’s workshops.<br>
Trib Photo/Sue Tone

Sue Larson, at the table in black at left, teaches kindergarten students a math game with dice and coins that introduces place value at Lake Valley Elementary School in December. Kindergarten and first-grade teachers from district schools watch and learn how to teach inductive math activities through Larson’s workshops.<br> Trib Photo/Sue Tone

Kindergartners counted dice to earn pennies, traded 10 pennies for a dime, then 10 dimes for a dollar. They didn't know this fun game with money was teaching them an important math concept about place value.

Humboldt Unified School District provides its teachers with professional development - such as Sue Larson's math training - during early release Wednesdays, which in turn benefit students.

Larson, senior lecturer with the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University, is working with HUSD elementary and middle school teachers to provide them with hands-on activities that teach inductive math skills.

HUSD Educational Services Director Diana Green said Larson's first training day with the district in November was so successful, she asked Larson to return in December and again in February.

At the December training session, Larson met with the district's kindergarten and first grade teachers at Lake Valley Elementary School. After a review of her previous session, she introduced a new game called Race for a Dollar. With teachers looking on, she taught a small group of students in Jeanne Bombest's afternoon kindergarten class how to play the game.

"I'll show you how to play this game, then the teachers will play with you," she told the youngsters, first making sure the students knew which coins were pennies and which were dimes.

The teachers observed Larson, then worked with small groups of students, and met afterwards to go over the learning process - theirs and the kindergartners.

Math games, classroom activities and ideas spill out of Larson into a receptive audience of new and more experienced teachers. For instance, she tells them how she sends a Math Mission book home with young students asking them to keep track of how they use math at home. Students return the next day and say, "I got up at 6:30, and 6:30 is a time. 6:30 is math." Or "I set the table for five people. I had five plates and five glasses. That makes 10 things."

Tammy Grauberger, teacher at Humboldt Elementary School, said Larson's methods are "more child curiosity centered," rather than teachers telling, telling, telling.

"Now, we ask them, 'How did you arrive at the answer?' Telling has no meaning. Telling them doesn't work. You don't see the understanding going on," Grauberger said.

Or as Larson puts it, "You become that guy by the side, rather than the sage on the stage."

"Ask your students, 'How do you know that? Why is it so?' instead of 'What' questions, which use low level thinking skills," the trainer said.

Larson taught math to upper elementary and middle school students for 21 years in Massachusetts. She helped Liberty Elementary School District in Phoenix create and compile more than 2,000 lessons for K-8 students based on the National Core Standards for Mathematics. Currently, she works with ASU education students, and presents workshops for teachers on classroom management, and math strategies and games.

"We've never had this much professional development before," Green said. "Every Wednesday teachers are learning new things."

Early release on Wednesdays - new this year to the elementary grades - gives teachers and principals opportunities to work on all kinds of things, including school goals, new common core standards, writing strategies, cooperative learning initiatives, and sharing strategies from the high school AVID program (Advancement Via Individual Determination) with middle school teachers.

Teachers at each grade level from all schools also get together to go over assessment test results and look at strengths and weaknesses in their own classroom. Then they share what's working and not working, and how to improve their teaching.

Green said teachers in Larson's math workshops were so thrilled with Larson's information that Larson has provided the district with all the information on thumb drives. If teachers want to work on lessons at home, as Larson does, they are welcome to put the information on their personal laptops, Larson told them on a return trip Feb. 1 at Liberty Traditional School.

"You would think we were giving them gold," Green said.

Kindergarten teacher Elizabeth Williams at Granville Elementary School enlisted the help of fifth-grade students to help monitor her younger students' learning the new math activities, Green said.

"At that age, the kindergarteners usually dive right in. They haven't developed math phobia," she said. "Hopefully, with inductive math and teachers like Sue Larson, we can eradicate math phobia."