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How to Deal with a Virtual Semester

Hello Friends!

Well, we’ve got some challenges ahead for the fall semester, so I brought in the big guns in the form of guest experts to help us tamp down the roiling panic.

On the college admissions front, the biggest difference I’m seeing this year among my students comes when they tackle writing supplemental essays for colleges they couldn’t visit. My heart goes out to these kids. If your child needs help, you know where to find me.

But you do not want me for help with math. That part of my brain atrophied long ago. Instead, you want our guest expert today, Alfie Alschuler of Summit View Learning, a math teacher for over twenty-five years (and dad of a teenager, so one of our tribe). Below, Alfie shares with us how the #*&^! our kids will get through higher level math virtually.

The Math Teacher’s Tips for Learning Higher Level Math Online

As my son prepares himself to enter college, I don’t want him to have a weak grasp of Calculus that will serve as foundational knowledge in his prospective chosen major, engineering. I’m sure you don’t want that for your kids either. As a professional math educator, I know that the difficulty students experience with their college Calculus class is the number one reason they drop out of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) majors. 

High school students’ struggles with college level Calculus are largely rooted in the pitfalls of typical math classes that might sound familiar:

  • The subject is often presented as a tedious and boring affair, decontextualized and stripped of meaning. 
  • Students are asked to memorize procedures so that they can produce answers, but they are rarely encouraged to make sense of what they are doing or unpack why the algorithms work.
  • Core concepts are covered rather than explored, and topics within mathematics are often taught in isolation, making it harder to see the bigger picture. 

Moving math education online this fall is likely to exacerbate these issues for many students. Understanding that families already feel stretched, and that additional distance learning can feel daunting, I have four specific tips to ensure that your children are learning math well. Ask yourself:

Are they working with other kids? Math is a collaborative subject. It has to be. The vast majority of learning in mathematics happens when students talk through their process, justify their reasoning, or make sense of someone else’s thinking. You can encourage collaboration! I plan to help my son create a small math study group. Whether online through Zoom or in person outside while the weather is warm enough, I know this will greatly improve his chances of understanding the content more deeply and enjoying the learning process. (We offer small group instruction at Summit View Learning in addition to individual tutoring if you’d like a ready-made study group for your child.) 

Are they learning in context? Students learn best when they can connect abstract ideas to something concrete and relatable. They can solve variations of the same problem twenty times in a row and drill endlessly but still be stymied by problems on tests that look slightly different from what they rehearsed. To place math into a meaningful context as my son contemplates a STEM major in college, I plan to expose him to people who are using high level math as professionals. I have found that most people are willing and happy to discuss their work with interested students. This includes professors of mathematics or any subject at  colleges of interest to your child—admissions offices can connect you.

Are they learning why? Too often math is taught procedurally. While it is important to learn about powerful and efficient algorithms — they were invented by humans for a reason!–true learning happens when students understand why these processes work and where they came from. Long division itself is a very useful way to divide large numbers but understanding why it works will help a student to understand rational functions in Precalculus. The “why?” is often left out of math classrooms. If your child’s school struggles to deliver the type of math education that will foster deep understanding and long-term success virtually, seek enrichment elsewhere. You can start with the SVL blog for some free advice.

Are new ideas connected to and extensions of prior understanding? If students don’t understand function families and transformation from Algebra classes, they won’t understand trigonometric functions. And students who don’t deeply understand the concept of function will struggle in college Calculus. Students need a robust enough understanding of one math class to succeed in the next. Ask your child if they remember enough math from last year to apply it to the class they’re enrolled in now, and if not, encourage them to seek help from their teacher first, then outside help if needed to bolster their chance at success. 

I plan to do everything in my power to ensure the answer to each question above is “yes” when it comes to my son’s math education and I think you should too. Your child’s teachers want them to succeed in online learning almost as much as you do, and they may have lots of ways that they incorporate these ideas. However, some children need more help to make math learning meaningful enough for long term success in college level math and related fields of study. I know these are trying times, but we parents can take an active role to ensure our children still receive the high quality learning that they deserve. If I can help, please don’t hesitate to contact me here, and don’t despair. An outstanding mathematics education in the current reality is still achievable.

The Psychologist’s Bonus Sanity Saver

On her blog post ANOTHER Semester of Online Learning?  my colleague, Dr. Maggie Wray, Ph.D., of Creating Positive Futures Academic & ADHD Coaching for Teens, offers tips for dealing with the psychological toll of the virtual classroom on our kids.

Okay, we’ve focused on math and mental health today as we gear up for the semester ahead (or for some of your kids, school has already begun). Let me know if there’s a specific topic you need me to cover in my next newsletter or in our CPR Facebook Group, and I’ll make it happen!



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