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Pinellas Schools Eye Games As Math Anxiety Cure

Lee Demorris
Family game night was recently held at five Pinellas County elementary schools

It’s family game night at Davis Elementary School in Clearwater, but there's not a Monopoly board or a Jenga block in sight. Instead, kids and parents are playing math games.

First grader Eleanor Nartker places a purple marble inside a diagram so she can complete a pattern. It's a little bit like Tic-Tac-Toe,  and she just made a bold move against her opponent, who happens to be her mom.

Eleanor's father, Jason Nartker, said his daughter's learning important skills with this visual representation of a math concept.

"Spatial recognition and orientation, and critical thinking skills,” he said. “It makes her look ahead."

Brandon Smith, lead mathematician for MIND Research Institute and sponsor of the game night, said solving problems with diagrams and pictures is a long way from the language-based math many adults experienced.

"Most of us were educated in a very rote and a very procedure-driven environment. But we often missed the concepts, so that's really where (this game approach is) going to feel very different than a traditional one that many of us adults are used to," he said. “We wanted more excitement, more productive struggle and more problem solving. We want to show people that math is fun."

A visual math approach to math is not new.  Schools in Singapore have focused on this kind of math curriculum for decades and its students consistently rank number one in global math achievement tests.

As a result. the Singapore Math curriculum has since been implemented by school districts across the United States.

Programs such as one called ST Math up the ante with computer-based instruction. Teachers say kids like it in part because of JiJi, an animated penguin students befriend and help get past a variety of obstacles, each representing a math concept.

The software was tested as a pilot program at 17 title one schools in Pinellas County about five years ago.

Credit Pinellas County School District
Pinellas County School District

The program was then expanded to another 50-plus Pinellas elementary schools with an initial investment of about $1.7 million. Laurel Rotter, elementary math specialist for the school district, said one of the things she noticed right away, was that students had the ability to sustain and keep attention on the program.

I think it really conceptually lets them see the models of the mathematics and the structure of the mathematics,” she said.

Rotter said the district just completed a study, which revealed a statistical improvement in student math scores It found that the higher the dosage in the usage of ST Math, the greater the probability of being a Level 3, 4, or 5 on our Florida state assessment.

"So we're seeing some good data," she said.

Credit Lee Demorris
Lee Demorris

A handful of other Florida school districts are trying out the program , including in Orange, Hernando and Collier Counties. But mathematician Brandon Smith said there's no reason families shouldn't engage in math game play at home. That's why everyone at Davis Elementary School will get to take the games with them when they leave. 

ate  Nartker, Eleanor's mom, likes the idea of doing math together at home. The family already does a lot of reading together.

"So it's kind of cool to be able to do a different subject area together,” she said. “And we get to practice some cooperation. Because we struggle with that a little bit. So this is good practice.”

As her Mom speaks, Eleanor places her special marble back on the game board with confidence.  The 6-year old seems pretty immune to math anxiety.

"I feel great about math,” she said. “I want to try."

As a reporter, my goal is to tell a story that moves you in some way. To me, the best way to do that begins with listening. Talking to people about their lives and the issues they care about is my favorite part of the job.
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