Family Math for Urban Students and Parents. ERIC
by Schwartz, Wendy
Proficiency in higher mathematics, particularly algebra, is important
for a good career. Unfortunately, though, girls and youth of color still
lag behind white males in math achievement and even in enrollment in higher
math courses. Further, many poor or immigrant adults did not have the opportunity
to learn math; thus, they have limited job opportunities, cannot serve
as models for their children, and may even fail to realize the value of
Family math programs, based on family literacy programs, successfully
teach basic math skills to both children and their parents. A variety of
family programs, some of which even cover higher order math concepts, have
been developed by organizations and implemented in urban schools. The most
comprehensive is Family Math, created by the Lawrence Hall of Science in
Berkeley, CA. In Great Britain, the IMPACT (Inventing Maths for Parents
And Children And Teachers) program reaches thousands of families and is
expanding throughout Europe. Other general math programs, such as the College
Board's EQUITY 2000, which is focused on students of color and marketed
to school districts, have a strong family involvement strand. Drawing on
these and other programs, this digest describes specific strategies for
teaching family math. Schools can employ them either as part of an overall
program or as ad hoc family learning activities.
Family math programs are based on several beliefs:
*All children, regardless of sex, cultural background, or socioeconomic
status, can learn higher mathematics.
*Students are more apt to learn when math is "real": when the curriculum
is exciting, meaningful, based on personal experiences, and relevant to
*Math tasks are an integral part of daily life, and families can learn
math together as they engage in their usual activities.
Program participants- teachers, parents, and students- are considered
to have a contract with each other, whereby the teacher plans and presents
math activities, and the parent and child work on them at home together.
Participation in programs increases home-school cooperation and fosters
parents' sense that the school can meet the needs of the whole family (Bobango
& Milgram, 1993). Children benefit significantly from their parents'
involvement; they appreciate the value of math more because their parents
do and they have more chances to practice math (Hartog & Brosnan, 1994).
Family math programs are problem solving in nature, requiring thought
as opposed to answers based on memorization. They cover a wide range of
concepts, from arithmetic and geometry to issues of probability, reasoning,
and spatial visualization. They emphasize process rather than product in
order to develop thinking skills and allay math anxiety and phobia that
can result from the "one-way-one-solution" belief about math learning (Saarimaki,
1993; Stenmark, Thompson, & Cossey, 1986).
The most meaningful math curriculum presents problems using situations
from real life and from a variety of cultures. Teachers explain exercises
that may not be understandable to some families, thus providing an education
in both math and multiculturalism. They show how knowledge of a variety
of math skills can make daily life easier for families, when managing finances,
shopping, or preparing meals (Bayliffe, Brie, & Oliver, 1993; Bobango
& Milgram, 1993). Finally, programs show links between math proficiency
overall and career success, and between mastery of certain mathematical
concepts and specific careers. One career possibility that programs stress
is math teaching (Anderson, 1996).
MATERIALS AND RESOURCES
Family math program problems and experiments employ situations and materials
from everyday experience. To further illustrate the value of math, neighborhood
merchants are recruited to describe the use of math in their work.
Programs use models and hands-on materials (called "manipulatives")
that allow participants to "feel" the problem as they solve it. Blocks,
beans, pennies, and other concrete objects help students understand what
numbers and space mean through visualization (Stenmark et al., 1986).
Increasingly, programs are also using electronic technology. Calculators
keep track of lists of numbers that need to be added together. Computer
spread sheets organize more complex problems that include multiple categories
with many numbers assigned to each. Interactive math software programs
are especially effective tools; families can solve related problems of
increasing complexity simply by progressing through the program; they can
develop a sense spatial relationships by manipulating graphics on the screen;
and they can become proficient in "mental mathematics", a skill that will
benefit them throughout the day. Further, learning with computers in groups
induces attendance at family sessions, fosters cooperation, and increases
the enjoyment in doing math (Harris, 1998; Bayliffe et al., 1993).
Most effective family math programs include the following (Border &
*Personal contact between teachers and parents to discuss issues unique
to the family and to assess learning progress.
*Periodic group meetings for parents that include an explanation of
the curriculum; cooperative learning; training in use of the texts, workbooks,
and manipulatives; a question-and-answer session; and an evaluation of
*A room in the school with appropriate resources (including computers
with math software) for family use.
*Family outings with learning opportunities.
Different types of family programs provide differing levels of learning
Group Work. Group sessions allow teachers to provide support and observe
how families learn. They allow families access to resources not present
at home, such as computers. And they foster a sense of community that encourages
learning and cooperation (Bayliffe et al., 1993). Math learning sessions
can be either stand-alone workshops that teach discrete math concepts and/or
instruct parents in helping their children at home, or part of a sequenced
learning series. Most are combined with at-home learning (Caldwell, 1989).
In inner cities, intensive summer learning programs can be particularly
effective; usually churches or organizations, such as local Urban League
chapters, manage them.
Home Work. The most comprehensive programs set up a system of home study
that includes provision of learning materials, a sequenced syllabus containing
problems and games, and a mechanism for tracking progress (Hartog &
Brosnan, 1994). Another model for home learning is a math learning packet
to be used over the summer. To ensure that families do the activities together,
math problems require interaction with parents in order to be solved. Ideally,
parents attend a pre-summer meeting at which the packet is explained (Epstein
& Herrick, 1991).
RECOGNITION OF FAMILY DIFFERENCES
Cultural Differences. As parents spend more time in the U.S., and as
new generations become further removed from their native culture, their
attitudes toward academic achievement in general, and math learning in
particular, are likely to be no different from those of others. Therefore,
program organizers guard against cultural stereotyping that can result
in the elimination of some families from the recruiting process.
It may be true also, though, that immigrant or poor parents view schooling
differently from educators. They may not understand why families should
participate in children's learning, or why problem solving is a more effective
way to learn than rote memorization. The competitive nature of Western
education may clash with the values of some ethnic groups. Some parents
may fear that they will fail at math as they did in the past. To allay
concerns, organizers explain that family math is different from other courses
parents may have taken and promise that they will be supported and will
not be judged (Caldwell, 1989; Curle, 1993).
Language Differences. Several different ways of working with limited
English proficient parents have been successful. Materials can be produced
in several languages. Bilingual teachers can translate coursework during
group sessions. Students fluent in English can translate lessons and problems
and then work on them with their families in their home language. Older,
English-fluent siblings can help younger children and their parents understand
the lessons. Regardless of the method used, parents are reassured that
teachers are not trying to undermine their ethnic identity (Caldwell, 1989;
Two longstanding general educational goals are to increase the number
of minority teachers and the number of teachers qualified to teach the
math content specified in the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics'
Standards. Training pre- and in-service teachers in family math can accomplish
both goals. Further, using a culturally-diverse, gender-balanced teaching
team demonstrates to participants that everyone can master math (Anderson,
Traditionally, math teachers do not expect or foster parent participation,
as do, for example, reading teachers. Since doing so can increase student
learning, teachers are trained to plan family math lessons, to work with
parents, and, possibly, to overcome stereotypes that could impede their
ability to form relationships with families (Epstein & Dauber, 1989).
One summer family math training program for teachers deals directly
with ethnic issues. It encourages teachers to share feelings about their
own experiences, including victimization from racism; and to discuss culturally-related
educational issues such as tracking, bilingualism, and effectively teaching
students with different learning styles (Allexsaht-Snider, 1996).
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