R U A Math Solving Champion?

“R U A Math Solving Champion?” -- our problem-solving acronym at the Edward Everett Elementary School  -- grew out of a long history of school-wide  work around math problem-solving.  For years we have been giving daily challenges for homework to get students accustomed to more difficult multi-step work.  Our students tended to break down into the “haves” and the “have nots” -- those who could successfully engage with the problem, and those who were simply overwhelmed from the beginning. We adopted a whole-school template for problem-solving, but no matter how much we tweaked it there always seemed to be problem situations that the template just didn’t fit.

In 2014, we developed RUAMSC -- Read/Underline/Answer Frame/Model/Solve/Check. There was nothing revolutionary about most of these steps -- they were actually very similar to other templates we’d used in the past.  There were two main differences, based on two successful habits we had noticed again and again among successful problem solvers:

  • Framing the answer first (step "A")This was a practice we had adopted for the daily challenges. We always had students divide their work area down the middle, placing the “work” -- modeling, thinking, and solving --- on the left, and their answer on the right. Somewhere along the line, we tried having students write a “blank” answer frame first.  We found that this really focused them on the value they were looking for; it also eliminated that frustrating problem of students who showed excellent work but failed to find the answer from within their many computations.
  • Flexible modeling (step "M"): In order to engage with a difficult problem situation, you have to understand exactly what’s happening. For many students, this doesn’t happen at the reading or underlining step.  We wanted to teach them to be flexible in their modeling, and arm them with an array of possible models -- sketches, equations, number lines, charts, etc. -- so that different students could enter the problem in different ways, based on what made sense to them visually.

Additionally, we were more specific in our teaching about all the steps.  For example, instead of just saying “check your work,” we defined some steps for checking (Plug your answer into the answer frame, read it back, ask yourself “Is it reasonable?”; repeat your computations.)

One key element to the success of this work was to create a sense of joy and excitement around math.  Finding the right answer is a process of discovery, rather than a competition.  Our student coaching, with “mathletes” being guided by their peers’ questions, has been a big part of this.  We try to infuse all of our instruction with a growth mindset -- believing that everyone can solve difficult problems with the right supports and the right attitude.

This process has been long and is still very much ongoing, but we think we have some resources to share that may be helpful to many teachers.  On our resource page https://sites.google.com/a/bostonpublicschools.org/ruamsc/, you will find:

  • An “R U A Math Solving Champion?” quick-reference sheet
  • Our student coaching protocol
  • Our math notebook setup
  • Some daily challenge problems that we’ve used in 3rd and 4th grade

We hope to add more in the future, so feel free to check back and use whatever you find helpful!

About the Authors: Mike O’Halloran and Jeff Parks are third grade teachers at the Edward Everett Elementary School, a Boston Public School in Dorchester, MA.  Jeff has been active as a math and technology facilitator and a co-chair of the school’s Instructional Leadership Team.  Mike is currently specializing in literacy and science, and has an interest in arts integration.