Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Guest Blog: Transforming Math Instruction

Rayla Rucker, a dedicated 4th grade teacher at Pleasant Hill Elementary, recently wrote a guest blog on Transforming Math Homework. Parents, educators and students throughout our district were positively impacted by this post. Rayla has agreed to write another post about her journey as she continues to transform her math instruction. Thank you, Rayla, for offering us your insights and expertise as you commit to problem solving every day!

"Mrs. Rucker, can you give us that in a word problem so we know how to solve it?” EL, 4th grader

Sometimes you never know when or if you’ll have a breakthrough, and sometimes the evidence comes in a simple question from one of your students.

This year I decided to make a change in math.  Problem solving every single day. I was skeptical. I didn’t know how I would “fit that in”.  All I could see was the hundreds of millions of skills I am supposed to teach my class of twenty-four 4th graders in a period of 9 months, more or less.  Oh, and also throw in those awesome Number Talks every day!  And Estimation! And Vocabulary! And on and on and on...

It is quite daunting when you look at every single thing you want to do for your kiddos.

The first valuable A-Ha moment for me was realizing that the skills and the problem solving weren’t two separate things in most cases.  Duh?  Right?  A little slow on the uptake sometimes...So, I thought, at the very least, I could tailor my student’s learning around those skills contextualized into word problems, the more real world the better.

And that’s what I have done.  Every single day we do problem solving...Every. Single. Day.

Believe it or not, my kids actually look forward to it.  I find that they are becoming very adept at knowing which operations and in what order they should use them.  I don’t use HIDE or any form of problem solving Must Do’s.  We start on Monday with a brand new skill.  We unpack the problem and show/share our strategies.  Every day during the week, we use a similar, but increasingly higher level, multi-step(ier) problem.  And on Friday, we have an assessment on that problem type.

Not saying this structure will work for everyone, but it works well for us.  

More recently, I have been tailoring the problems around the Number Talk strategies.  So, those two aspects of my math workshop have melded together quite nicely.  I also use problem samples from the units of study.

Here are some things I have learned from this grand experiment.

1.  Change is super hard.  

We know what has worked for us in the past, but sometimes what works for us is not what works for our students.  Deciding to change is easy for me, that’s the type of person I am, but that doesn’t mean it has been a piece of cake.  In the beginning, I felt as though these changes were not working and wanted to give it up, but I stuck with it.  

2.  It gets easier.  

My class is in a groove with problem solving.  It has become second nature, and they actually smile and get all giddy when they know that’s what we are about to do. If I’m being honest 95% are giddy....I still have about 5% that can’t stand it...but we’re working on it!

3.  You will see success.

First and foremost, I have students who are excelling that never thought they were good at math.  It makes them feel so good about themselves, and that makes me very happy!  Secondly, and not nearly as important, I spoke with some other teachers that are problem solving every day.  Everyone I spoke with had more success on the problem solving on their 18 week benchmark than ever before!  Oh, and don’t forget... When I give a naked number problem, they ask for it in a real life situation!  That is the greatest success, isn’t it?

4. Our students will have to be problem solvers for the rest of their lives.  

We really do owe it to them to give them as much experience in this area as we can.  It really isn’t just about math, it’s about thinking, and creating thinkers is what this business of teaching is all about.

So, if you aren’t problem solving every day, I challenge you to give it a try.  I committed to it, and it has made all the difference.


  1. That is my daughter. I am so proud.

    1. Leander ISD is so blessed to have her as a teacher. She inspires us every day.