McSwain students tackle ‘Problem of the Month’ using new learning standards

Fourth- through eighth-graders at McSwain Elementary School roamed the halls, gym and library, studying their schoolmates’ math work on a recent Friday afternoon.

The “Problem of the Month” event, according to school officials, is a strategy adopted from the Silicon Valley Math Initiative – an effort to improve math instruction and student learning.

Dave Childers, principal at McSwain Elementary, said the “Problem of the Month” is a word problem of differing complexity that encourages children to work together to find a solution. They are then presented through a visual, such as a poster.

This, Childers said, is only one example of how the school is approaching the new Common Core State Standards.

Newly implemented this 2014-15 school year, the standards aim to develop higher-level thinking skills in students. Childers explained that the new standards are not a curriculum, but rather an initiative that allows students to do more research and investigation than in years past.

“We really want our students to think about the process of math and not just focus on the answers,” he said. “Instead of memorizing multiplication facts, Common Core will help students explain their answers with a visual representation.”

The Common Core learning approach, however, has not been welcomed by everyone. Childers explained that school officials have had to deal with parents who do not understand the need of the modern learning approach.

“Any time you have a massive change, it makes people uncomfortable,” Childers said. “There tends to be some resistance, especially when the math their child is doing does not look like the math they did when they were in school.”

Childers said he commends the teachers at McSwain who have adapted to the new teaching methods, also learning as they go.

Lauren Lanum, a sixth-grade math teacher at the school, said the goal of academic activities such as “Problem of the Month” is to expose students to challenging concepts and encourage them to collaborate with other people.

Student reaction to the math project in her classroom varies, she said.

“Some children will tell me: Why are you doing this to us? But I encourage them because this is going to make them stronger students,” she said.

Taking on more challenging work and promoting critical thinking skills will better prepare students as they move forward, Lanum added.

Kaitlynn Perez, a seventh-grader at McSwain Elementary, has noticed a big difference from the type of classwork she was doing last year, compared with the work she is doing today.

“Some of the work is harder, and there’s more steps and explaining (to do),” Perez said, “but it’s easier to understand what we’re doing and why we have to do it.”

Regarding Friday’s “Problem of the Month” event, Perez said, “it was fun to see how different groups will solve problems differently. It gives us more ideas.”

Sun-Star staff writer Ana B. Ibarra can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or