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Saint Leo University Educators Offer Help Understanding the Math Challenges Middle School Students Face Now

COVID-19 made learning math at the middle school level especially hard last year, and educators are trying to help students regain lost ground.

Children attending public schools in Florida this year and their teachers are trying to work their way through multiple learning gaps caused by disruptions to in-person learning last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Educators from the Saint Leo University community are among those honing in on problem areas, and helping to forge solutions.

For instance, there are worries statewide about how many middle school students struggled learning the standard math skills studied in the seventh and eighth grades. In 2021, only 37 percent of eighth graders tested passed the statewide math exam, in fact.“ Being forced to go online hurt many students academically,” said Jacob Austin, who is completing the Saint Leo bachelor’s degree program for future math teachers with the aid of special fellowship funding. He has already satisfied the university’s requirements for a major in math, and he has been employed at a private tutoring company while earning his classroom teaching credentials. Austin said last year was especially problematic because while students were trying to learn math from home last year, their classroom teachers lacked the means of discerning students’ particular learning needs online.

So school principal Edward LaRose, a Saint Leo University adjunct faculty member for mathematics education, is helping his future teachers, like Austin, and teachers on his staff at Hernando County’s Weeki Wachee High School. It’s useful for parents, as well as teachers in training and current teachers, to understand why it is important to overcome the COVID-19 side in math, and where the adults can be supportive and helpful.

Ed-LaRose-10-4-2021Why is this so concerning? “Middle school math is important because it sets you up for high school,” said LaRose. And high school math is important whether students realize it at the time, or not. Students who want to go to college right away know they need to pass math subjects, but in today’s society, high school graduates who do not attend college right away may want to do so at age 22 or 23, LaRose explained. They need to have a math awareness. And we all recognize that more jobs are becoming reliant on being able to approach science, math and technology with some proficiency.

What are students supposed to be learning in middle grades? Middle school math includes learning to reduce fractions, to convert numbers into percentages and back, and to recognize angles and degrees of angles. Those are also skills commonly used in everyday life. In pre-algebra, which students take in eighth or ninth grade, students start learning how to solve for missing elements in equations, and to understand that some values may vary from one problem to another. They also find there can be more than one variable, making things more complex.

Algebra I provides students with more skills, so that they can start solving more equations, and so that they can start graphing results. Geometry introduces spatial awareness, beyond the two dimensions of length and width. (For a more complete overview, see the box below). As Austin said, “Since mathematics is almost purely foundational, when students fail to learn material, it hurts them in the coming years.” Middle school students may think they are getting by in the moment by looking up answers for a particular assignment, Austin said, but they really need to understand how to get those answers to keep moving ahead.

Parents can inadvertently send children the wrong message about math. This has been going on since long before COVID, LaRose said, who began his educational career as a high school math teacher, and studied educational leadership at the graduate level at Saint Leo. Many parent-teacher conferences made it apparent to LaRose that parents can bring their own past difficulties in learning math into their children’s current situations, and it’s not helpful. They think it is “socially acceptable to be bad at math.” This is what he means: When a teacher explains to a parent that their child is having difficulty progressing in math skills, it is not unusual to hear something like this: “Oh, it’s OK, I’m bad at math.” By contrast, LaRose said: “Never do you hear a parent say, ‘Oh, it’s OK, I’m bad at reading too.’”

In this time of COVID difficulties, LaRose said, that attitude heightens the challenges, so he advises parents to stop and think about whether they are carrying their own anxieties into the picture. He said it’s important that parents separate their own nervousness from their children’s experience.

AtkinsDr. Holly Atkins, who oversees the education (teacher-preparation) programs for undergraduate students at Saint Leo, added that adolescent girls tend to face more anxiety and take on self-defeating attitudes. “The result,” she said, “is that women continue to be underrepresented in computer and engineering occupations—which make up 80 percent of the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) workforce—at only 15 percent, according to the most recent U.S. Census.”

Atkins seconded LaRose’s advice that parents can “Be careful how you express any of your own negative feelings about math.” Instead, reinforce the belief that students can strengthen their math abilities. Atkins cited the research of popular TED Talk speaker and learning psychologist Carol Dweck, who has produced “compelling evidence that parents' and teachers' words can influence students' attitudes that wherever they are in the learning process, they can improve.”

The middle-school age brings its own motivational challenges for educators to overcome. This may not be immediately visible to parents, but teachers see that middle schoolers are distinctly different from elementary students in the level of eagerness to please and impress the teacher, LaRose said. It is just a fact of growing up. Austin, in his tutoring job, explained how he sees this play out with secondary school students in his part-time job at a private tutoring company: “One of the main issues is motivating the students. Especially when it comes to high school, it is hard to motivate them. We have a prize cabinet that they can redeem their cards for, but for students in high school, they want more high-ticket items that are hard to obtain for a math tutoring center. So motivation is hard for these students.”

Educators want to share their motivational strategies with parents. If parents, and actually all the adults around could be supportive of the teaching strategies that work in these situations, it would be helpful, LaRose said. “Celebrate mistakes and reward the ability to try,” LaRose said.

In other words, reinforce the attitude that mistakes are one of ways we humans find out what doesn’t work—much like in science—so mistakes in math are to be expected and are part of the path. “Have the mindset with students that ‘You will just keep working, and eventually you will figure it out,’‘’ he said. He coaches his teachers to do this with students, as well.

Austin, the teacher in training, said that he has come to the same conclusion in his one-on-one work in tutoring. “The strategy that works best in my experience is slowly working with them through problems, and once they start to get it, having the student explain to you the problem.” So, the teacher in encouraging patience and persistence.

LaRose added that if students are struggling alone with homework, use of free online math learning aids can help, if the family has internet access. Students can search for the particular kinds of math questions they are working on at the moment—there are rich and deep sources of content for this, LaRose said. Atkins added that the educational book publisher Scholastic (Scholastic.com) has made some online camp resources available year-round, and some in the summer.

Last year reset the objectives for math teachers this year. In addition to being charged with teaching middle school and high school students the math elements required for the current year, teachers are seeing that they “need to plug in some holes from last year.” LaRose is helping his teachers map out the specific concepts to cover and review in this year’s adapted curriculum.

In-person learning created new challenges this year. While schools are generally not closing down in-person learning and sending children home to learn online this year, the continued spread of COVID-19 is causing some other difficulties, LaRose explained. Essentially, children who have become sick or exposed have to go home, into quarantine periods that last 10 days or so. In practical terms, that means students in a single math classroom are coming into class at different learning units all the time. That compounds the complexity of teaching students in the same classroom who have learning gaps from the prior year. The upshot is that students in a single classroom can be at different stages in the curriculum—as many as three, LaRose said. “We’ve spent a lot of time talking about this. The pandemic is forcing our hand to get better at differentiated learning (being prepared for children working at varying unit levels.) It’s easy to say but hard to do. It requires going back over work to fill in gaps, [distribute] missed material, and include reviews,” he said. College students who are education majors are seeing these things in their field placements in classrooms, as well.

There is another strategy involving encouragement that is important in this situation. LaRose said that in addition to coaching his math teachers to encourage children that they will learn through mistakes, he is also asking them to encourage students who are visibly making progress in their work, but are shy about speaking up in the classroom and sharing what they have done. LaRose is asking his teachers to encourage students to share their successes, to overcome their intimidation. It’s another opportunity for confidence-building with at least that one student, and it be inspiring to the others, he said.

Final tip for parents: It can be helpful for parents to remember that there are other opportunities to reinforce to their children the benefits of math proficiency and analytical skills beyond what is happening at the moment in the child’s grade level, or with tutoring services, Atkins said. “Help your son or daughter view math in a positive light and see future career possibilities.”


Math highlights at progressive grade levels

Seventh grade: Negative numbers; fractions, decimals and percentages; beginning equations; shapes and measurements; some statistics.

Eighth grade (if not Algebra I): Algebraic terms or expressions; understanding variable elements in equations; roots of numbers; volume of three-dimensional shapes; solving equations that include the concepts just listed, so, equations with both positive and negative numbers, for example, or equations with two variable elements, and more.

Algebra I (in either eighth or ninth grade): Solving more equations, using more skills; learning to graph. These are analytical skills.

Geometry: Higher understanding of spatial awarenessshapes, lines, planes, understanding measurements of spatial objects and ways to discover full measurements with only partial information (equations, diagrams, and more problem-solving skills).

Algebra II: Higher-order equations to solve; what exponents are and how they function; more complicated graphing.

Trigonometry, pre-calculus and calculus can follow, depending on the student’s plans.

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