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11 Tricks to Improve Your Students’ Math Achievement

Special Teacher Focus: Fresh Ideas for Your Math Classroom

by Caralee Adams

11 Tricks to Improve Your Students’ Math Achievement

This article, published on August 28, 2017 to the WE ARE TEACHERS website, points out that while all teachers want their students to succeed in math, no one wants to teach to the test—routinely drilling students with math facts and assigning practice worksheets. Being intentional and using creative approaches to your instruction can get students excited about math. Not surprisingly. First In Math can help!

READ MORE: 11 Tricks to Improve Your Students’ Math Achievement

First in Math Honors Mountain View Success

FLANDERS, NJ—Mountain View Elementary School was recently honored by the First In Math program. The online math-practice website tasks students with grade-specific math challenges and, as of June 19, 2017, Mountain View students had solved more than 7.75 million of them!

 First in Math Honors Mountain View Success
Aradha Jain, Mountain View's top student in First in Math, shows off the school's plaque with Principal Frank J. Fischel, Ed.D.

The Mt. Olive Township District school ranked #1 in New Jersey and #2 in the nation based on the number of math problems solved per student, and the school has been in the FIM Top Ten in the U.S. every year since beginning the program in 2013.

“I’m so proud of what our kids have accomplished,” said Dr. Frank Fischel, Mountain View principal. “So much of our success is due to teachers keeping excitement high and contributing to the recognition program that rewards students for their personal achievements. The friendly competitive spirit that First In Math has helped engender is now part of who we are as a school.”

While they are home to the country’s top third grade class, Mountain View’s success in FIM is a school-wide achievement, thanks to a high level of participation among many students—not just a few driven kids or classes.

Aradha Jain, a fifth-grader in Peg Maute’s class, is Mountain View’s top student with more than 11,000 correctly-solved math problems. Rounding out the school’s top 15 are Riley Cahill, Vrishank Malik, Abhimanyu Nair, Nelith Siriwardhana, Ethan You, Ryan Schafer, Eesha Bosula, Robert Cahili, Sam Mirsky, Chris Pintado, Anthony Walsh, Sal Salafia, Mo Alabssi, and Jenna Klatt. 

How important is math achievement—and the First In Math National Top Ten School award—to the students and faculty? The plaque celebrating their success remains on display in the main office, indefinitely.

Determination and Effort Pay Off for Maryland Student

SEVERN, MD—Harleigh Dingman is a winner in many ways. She maintains excellent grades and sings in the chorus. As a competitive dancer, she practices seven days a week for at least three hours a day. Somehow, she also makes time to sharpen her math skills on the First in Math site. A lot of time.

 Harleigh Dingman

She plays nearly every night, according to her mother, Tamara Dingman, who is also a teacher and First In Math Team Leader. “Harleigh doesn’t attend my school, but she has heard me talking about the program since she was in first grade,” says Dingman. “This year, the first day she tried it she ended up as the second-place Player Of The Day (POTD), and decided then and there she wanted to be on top instead of second. She has been FIM Player Of The Week (POTW) ever since.” 

The determined Quarterfield Elementary School fourth-grader became #1 in her class, grade, and school, and was the POTW for all 39 weeks the school participated. She ranked #1 in Anne Arundel County Public Schools among all fourth graders and #2 all grades, also ending the school year #4 in the state of Maryland among fourth graders and #13 all grades.

Harleigh set a goal to get on the First in Math National list for fourth graders, which she achieved. She is currently ranked #58. 

But it wasn’t easy. It took a lot of determination and effort to get there, along with support from her family and her teacher, Toniann Shaffer

“School has sometimes been difficult for Harleigh,” explains Dingman. “She reads a whole grade behind and has mild hearing loss. Math had always been easier for her, until she hit third grade and word problems became a focus.”

Fourth grade brought Dingman a whole new appreciation for her daughter’s perseverance, and for the program that helped her. “First In Math has done wonderful things for Harleigh. It helped motivate her. She learned all her math facts, taught herself division, negative and positive numbers, and weight.”

“We love First in Math,” agrees Shaffer. “Harleigh did a great job. She showed great progress in math, especially division, because her math facts were so much easier for her. I am very proud of all her work and determination.” Shaffer gave Harleigh the official First in Math POTW lanyard to keep at the end of the year “because no one else even came close to her record.”

Harleigh says that she still checks First in Math every morning, and if another player is ahead of her she figures out how much more she needs to play to beat them. Even though the school year is over, she plays every day—even on the family’s vacation. 

What’s next? We’re not sure, but Harleigh says she is excited, and already has a game plan for next year. 

Classroom Volunteer Places Among
First In Math National Top Ten

ALAMOGORDO, NM—Yucca Elementary School’s William “Mr. Bill” Hanna finished second in the nation among all educator-players in the 2017 First In Math Top Ten competition. What makes this truly unique, however, is that Hanna is not your typical educator.

William "Mr. Bill" Hanna
William "Mr. Bill" Hanna

Hanna has volunteered at Yucca Elementary School since February, 2016, contributing more than 600 volunteer hours during the 2016-2017 school year alone. He enjoys helping the school’s 329 participating students navigate the First In Math program and Yucca’s First in Math Club.

The retired Air Force veteran encourages students by providing extra incentives, like pizza parties, to supplement the built-in positive reinforcement the First In Math site provides. “I know how some students feel when playing games with timers and that kind of thing—because I have some information-processing issues myself,” admits Hanna. “From what I’ve seen, this is a valuable, low-stress math-practice tool that can help build confidence in all types of learners.”

Last year, “Mr.Bill” met First In Math VP Barbara Asteak when she volunteered to help out with their 24 Challenge math tournament. “I recall telling her that I had a lot of enthusiasm for First In Math, as did my studnets,” he says. “This year I decided to put my words to the test. I hope my students are proud of my success—I know I am proud of theirs.”

Yucca Elementary ended the National Top Ten competition as the #1 First In Math school in the Alamogordo Public School District, and ranked third overall in New Mexico. In April, the school passed the one-million-sticker milestone.

Related: Top Educator Players - see the Lola J. May Award winner and Silver / Bronze medal winners for 2017

Harvard Medical Engineering and Medical Physics Student Isha Jain Receives 2017 Weintraub Award

CAMBRIDGE, MA—In March, Harvard-MIT Health Sciences & Technology Medical Engineering and Medical Physics PhD student, Isha Jain, became one of only thirteen graduate students, worldwide, selected to receive the 2017 Harold M. Weintraub Graduate Student Award.

Isha Jain
Left: 2017 Weintraub Award Winner and Harvard PhD candidate Isha Jain. Middle: 15-year-old Isha wins a prestigious Intel Award. Right: A young Isha hoists the 2003 PA State Platinum Masters trophy she won in Harrisburg.

"It is such an honor to receive this award,” says Jain, who is originally from Bethlehem, PA. “It is really nice to have validation that you are working on interesting research problems that will hopefully one day have a biomedical impact. Disease relevance and the hope for therapies is the reason I am so drawn to science." Jain works in the lab of Professor Vamsi Mootha, focusing on mitochondrial disease.

The Weintraub Award recognizes outstanding achievement during graduate studies in the biological sciences. A committee of individuals from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center selects awardees based on the quality, originality and significance of their work.

Jain shares a special connection to First In Math, via her participation in—and domination of—the 24® Game Pennsylvania State 24 Challenge Championships in 2003. Barely big enough to hoist the Platinum Masters Division Championship trophy she won as a 7th-grader, Jain impressed everyone with her focus and determination. Among them was 24® Game and First In Math® creator Robert Sun.

“There are a few ‘24 kids’ who make such a lasting impression that they are remembered even after many years have passed,” says Sun. “Isha is one of them.”

“As a sophomore at Freedom High School, Isha placed fourth in the Zoology category of the Intel International Science and Engineering Research Fair,” recalls Sun. “She was quick to credit the role that math skills played in her award-winning research.”

Top Player in Nevada Enjoys Facetime with
Education Leader Robert Sun

LAS VEGAS, NV—When Liberty Perez and her Southern Highlands Preparatory middle school peers first picked up their iPads and logged into First In Math®, she realized it could be an interesting way to become a better math student.

Liberty Perez and Robert Sun
Proof of just another way Liberty used technology to meet one of her goals—a meeting with the developer of First In Math on FaceTime! Left to right: 1) Liberty and Robert Sun share a laugh. 2) With Principal Carla Martin. 3) Showing off her new Apple watch, a gift from her parents.

The energetic 8th grader already excelled in reading, art, music and science, but math was not necessarily her favorite subject. SHPS Math teacher, Susan Kolodny, encouraged her interest, and together they began to watch her First In Math sticker-count grow. When it reached 5,000, she set another goal. Then another. And another.

By the end of the First In Math National Top Ten competition on April 28, Perez had amassed 53,390 stickers, and was ranked #1 among all Nobel schools, #1 in Nevada and #8 Nationwide, all grades.

“The fact is, Liberty used perseverance, self-monitoring and goal-setting to set herself apart from her peers,” explains Southern Highlands Principal Carla Martin.

Executive Director for Nobel Learning Communities, Inc., Kathleen Maroney, agrees. “I could not be more proud of her effort. Libby is an amazing student who represents Nobel and First In Math with pride and enthusiasm, and I want to congratulate her on a job well done.”

When Libby—as she is known to her friends—wanted to know how to earn more stickers, she reached out to her math coach, Nobel Learning Education Manager Toby Grosswald, for guidance. Together, they contacted Suntex International, emailing the corporate offices of First In Math. “I wanted everyone to know I was in it to win it, and I wanted to ask if I could speak with Mr. Sun when I placed in the National Top Ten!”

Thanks to technology, the 2,000 miles that separated them did not stand in the way. Her eventual face-to-face ‘meeting’ with inventor Robert Sun impressed everyone. “Students aren’t usually that poised or confident,” says Suntex Executive Vice President, Nan Ronis, who helped arrange a FaceTime chat with the Pennsylvania-based Sun. “She listened, offered feedback and was comfortable doing so.”

Sun came away from their meeting very impressed. “She set a goal to be in the top ten players in the nation—among more than a million players—and she achieved that goal through sheer persistence. I believe Liberty will make great contributions to humanity as she continues to grow."

“This story shows every student that when you set your mind to something, it can be achieved,” says Grosswald. “The dedication, determination and drive that Liberty demonstrated was supported by her educators and mentors every step of the way. All of us congratulate Libby, knowing that this is not the last time that we will hear of her accomplishments.”

Southern Highlands Preparatory School is a part of Nobel Learning Communities, a network of more than 200 private schools in 18 states and the District of Columbia, with a commitment to outstanding preschools and K-12 schools.

Benjamin Banneker Association and First In Math
Team Up for Visit to Texas Boys and Girls Club

SAN ANTONIO, TX—Between this year’s Texas NCSM and NCTM conferences, Benjamin Banneker Association President, Brea Ratliff, invited First In Math® representatives to conduct workshops for staff members and students at the Eastside San Antonio Boys and Girls Club.

BBA Workshops in San Antonio
Left: At NCTM 2017, Margaret Walker, (right) past president of Benjamin Banneker Association, presents a clock to Nancy Kane in recognition of the First In Math program’s long-time support of BBA initiatives. Right: Staff and students learn about the 24® Game at the San Antonio Boys and Girls Club.

Mel Christensen, Training Coordinator for the San Antonio area Boys and Girls Club Program, organized an outreach to the other surrounding clubs, whose members were also in attendance. First In Math’s Nancy Kane and Shelley Rosen directed one of the five the workshops.

In the morning, Rosen presented a slideshow highlighting several games from the 24® Game series. The staff was very interested in the 24 Game and in the activities provided. Each staff member was given a 24 Game to take with them.

The afternoon brought a fun-filled Power Hour, where Kane and Rosen worked with 6th and 7th graders, while Banneker members and volunteers worked with other grade levels. Students rotated through three different stations, including a 24® Game introduction and a fun 24 Game Factor Wheels activity that allowed them to work in small groups and compete against each other. At the third station, students enjoyed working on the First In Math online program website.

Some of the 40 staff members present, including Program Manager Mark Crump from the East Side Club, were former Boys & Girls Club members who are now there to mentor children and give back to the community.

Rosen hopes they will continue to use the 24 Game and the First In Math website to create opportunities for the children to connect with the math and the world of numbers. “First in Math and the 24 Game are, first and foremost, great learning activities—but they have many applications. Organizations like the Boys and Girls Clubs can use our proven type of game-based learning to engage children, and to help bridge the transition between school and home.”

Changing the Shape of Learning

by Robert Sun

Learning is often viewed as a linear process. First, the thinking goes, students must be convinced they can complete a task. For kids who question their ability to learn, this is a big stumbling block. It puts the onus on teachers to find ways to overcome doubt, negative self-image and prior failures.

Robert Sun with Students

Next, teachers are expected to discover a way for children to become self-motivated. They must show their students a connection to prior learning, or find an intrinsic appeal in the subject matter. Only after these two steps have been accomplished are students considered ready to move on to the final step: learning something new.

The drawback with this approach is its narrow perspective. It places too many steps in sequence, with too many preconditions. Loaded with roadblocks, it makes effective learning difficult. A better model is to think of instruction not as a straight line but as a circle, with entry possible at any spot along the circumference.

Such a model is not only more flexible, but also more inviting to children of varying interests and abilities. Now “do” can be an entry point—as well as “want to do.”

A circular model also increases the ways in which a child can be motivated. The video game industry has used this paradigm to great effect, changing the culture of an entire generation.

Video games succeed because of their non-threatening, open, and self-reinforcing approach to acquiring new skills. First In Math’s digital content is designed to exploit the circular nature of learning using the same key attributes of popular video games: comprehensive content; multiple points of entry; high engagement; a seamless gradient of challenges; a sense of control; short cycle of play and the freedom to make mistakes.

When correctly applied, the circular pattern provided by digital learning games on the First In Math site can actually become a spiral, leading to ever-higher levels of math achievement. As all teachers know, negative attitudes can be self-reinforcing in children. The short cycle of play in a digital game, however, can solve the problem. One quick success presents the child with a question: “Do I go away, or do I continue?” Most will choose the Start button and continue.

When children admit to themselves, “I can do this,” it introduces a new feeling based on the natural response to previous success. Instead of worrying about the threat of a bad grade or a negative reaction from their teacher or parent, kids now think, “I did better than I thought I could, and perhaps I’ll do as well next time.” After working three decades with children and mathematics, my experience confirms that it is not motivation that creates action, but taking action that creates the motivation to do more.

Before long, success eliminates fear. A new perspective takes hold, and the spiral of progressive achievement becomes a reality.

There is no magic formula for math success, but a top-quality tool like First In Math can provide an environment for the most overlooked aspect of math instruction: practice. Like playing baseball or learning the piano, math is a skill that requires practice. When all the right attributes are in place, a digital game for math practice can be immensely effective. It’s up to us to provide that welcoming environment—and then let kids do what they do best: explore and learn for themselves.

ROBERT SUN is the CEO of Suntex International and inventor of First In Math, an online program designed for energizing every child to learn, love and live mathematics.

Son of Florida Math Teacher Shines
On “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire”

WESTON, FL—Marc Horowitz is a former math teacher and current Curriculum Specialist at Indian Trace Elementary who has shepherded many children on to math success, but none more so than his own son, who recently appeared as a contestant on the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire game show.

Charles Horowitz

According to Horowitz, the adventure began when he sent in an application for his son to audition for the show.  “When we were contacted, we were in shock,” laughs Horowitz. “Charles interviewed and auditioned via Skype, and before we knew it, he was chosen to be a contestant on the show.”

Horowitz says the experience was an incredible one, from stepping onto the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire stage in Las Vegas for the first time, to meeting host Chris Harrison.  “Every step of the process was exciting, although a bit nerve wracking.”

Charles was decidedly less nervous, and enjoyed being on stage. “Even though I experienced how stressful facing the cameras can be, I was confident, because my friends supported me the entire way, saying they knew I would do great.”

His appearance on the show created a lot of buzz, but a clip of Charles solving a difficult math problem went viral nationwide after it was posted on the show’s Instagram account. (View clip here)

So where did Charles learn the ‘mad math skills’ that Harrison spoke of after the 13-year-old calculated the correct solution to a difficult a math problem? His proud father takes some credit, but says he had an ally in the process.

“I strongly believe that First in Math was a driving force in my son’s early academics, as he participated in the program for four years,” explains Horowitz, whose classroom teams placed #1 in national competition in both 2009 and 2010. “First In Math helped him build the basics for all functions of math, as well as algebra and solving for variables.”

According to Horowitz, one of the best things about First In Math is the fact that it is an enriching activity. “That means I was able to go beyond what was instructed in class with Charles, and with many of my other students, as well.”

Charles is now 14 years old, and completing 8th grade. His hobbies include playing the clarinet, participating in National Junior Honor Society projects, and participating in environmental volunteer work around his school.

What does Charles think about his brief brush with stardom? “There are a lot of behind-the-scenes things I learned about—and it was one of the best experiences of my life!” Final Answer.

Robert Sun Speaks to Parents, Students
At Calypso Family Math Night

BETHLEHEM, PA—First In Math® creator Robert Sun visited Calypso Elementary and spoke with a crowd of more than 180 guests at the school’s Family Math Night on February 28. Pre-K through fifth-grade students and their parents, grandparents and siblings listened intently as Sun told them how math played an integral role in his unconventional journey to success.

Robert Sun visits Calypso ES
Inventor Robert Sun shared graphics of the new First In Math VIFs™ module, as well as personal photos, that help explain his journey to success.

Sun emigrated from China to West Philadelphia at age nine. One of four children being raised by a single parent, he struggled to learn English, but eventually connected to others through math.

Sun would go on to earn an Engineering degree from the University of Pennsylvania, but decided his true calling was to help students succeed in math. He invented the 24® Game in 1988, debuted the First In Math® Online Program in 2002, and has now introduced an addition to the First In Math arsenal—the Very Important Facts™ (VIFs™) System—to provide students with a strong base of knowledge in foundational math skills.  

After Sun spoke, students were given the opportunity to go to different tables—each table had games for them to play that were grade appropriate, including some from the 24® Game series. Student volunteers from Moravian College were stationed at the tables to help everything run smoothly.

Students could also go into the library to use Chromebooks and play First In Math, where FIM Project Coordinator Nancy Kane worked with students, parents and grandparents. “I had fun teaching families how to log in to First In Math at home,” says Kane. “At the end of the night, each family was given a 24® Game Anniversary Edition and a 24® Game bookmark to tie into Calypso’s Family Reading Night.”

Kane enjoyed the Reading Night posters of the children’s favorite stories displayed throughout the school. “They were very creative, well thought out and very artistic, clearly a lot of effort was put into them. It brought back memories of when my boys were young and were reading some of the same titles.”

According to Principal Kathy Bast, Calypso is the smallest school in the Bethlehem Area School District. It is truly a neighborhood school and retains a great sense of community.  “We understand that it makes for a long day when we hold this type of event in the evening, but it demonstrates how truly dedicated our families are, and how important their child’s education is to them.” Bast’s own daughter attends Palmer Elementary, but joined her mom after school so she could meet Sun.

Junior Journalists Report on First In Math

TELFORD, PA—Souderton Area School District’s Vernfield Elementary has a digital newspaper run by eager students and an amazing teacher, Cindy Edgar.

Young authors from Vernfield ES
Young authors (l to r) Tyler Lutz, Connor Klock, Brycen Clarke

Recently, three fourth-grade students—Brycen Clarke, Connor Klock and Tyler Lutz—asked to interview one of the school’s biggest First In Math proponents, Vernfield Elementary Technology Teacher & Integration Coach Jennifer Kling, to discuss the program.

“It is a simple article, but it is not hard to imagine how proud and invested these boys are about the content,” says Kling. “They are truly inspired to be journalists, and they want to spread the good news about how First in Math can help all students.”

“We hope that everyone liked the article, and that everyone at First In Math knows how much Vernfield students appreciate the luxury of being able experience deep practice with their First in Math subscriptions,” says Edgar, who teaches third grade.

First In Math creator, Robert Sun, says he is thankful for energetic educators like Edgar and Kling—the latter a long-time, avid supporter of First In Math. “I admire her work building high levels of math achievement with her students over the years.”

Enjoy their story, below, reprinted with permission:

First In Math
By Brycen Clarke, Connor Klock, Tyler Lutz

Do you want to learn about First in Math? You will find out in this article!

We sat down with Mrs. Kling to ask her about First in Math. The inventor of First in Math is Robert Sun who also created the math game 24®. He believes math is patterns and it is important how a number connects with other numbers. The First in Math Online Program is used by more than 10 million students in the United States and other countries too!

During the beginning of October, our school, Vernfield Elementary, was in 38th place in the whole state of Pennsylvania. First place in the state was St. Laurence School. The average stickers per student in St. Laurence School was 4,472. Will Stover, a fifth-grade student in our school was ranked 45th in our state. Way to go Will!  The top player in the nation in early October earned 37,568 points [stickers] and is from San Diego, California.

See More Articles in the News Archive

FIM 2017 Champion:

Daniel Wang, Jr.

2017 Honorable Mention

Daniel Wang, Jr. (PA)
Aran Jothi (VA)
Neel Anand (VA)
Ayan Swain (NJ)
Joshua Pajimola (CA)
Reyansh Bahl (NC)
Liberty Perez (NV)
Derek Garcia Rodrigez (MA)

Team Leaders
Jeffrey Keys (PA)
Samuel Allison (FL)
Adam Yaller (PA)
Annejeanette Washington (FL)
Abbi Stoloff (FL)
Adriana Figone (FL)
Lupita Vecchitto (CA)
Lisa Weingartner (FL)
Stephanie Sillo (PA)
Garth Jones (FL)

Chris Sakers, (MD)
William Hanna (NM)
Carol A. Lauck (PA)
Alison Allen (FL)
Linda Isherwood (PA)
Mary Higgins (PA)
James Scanlon (PA)
Sister Georgiana M. Connell, IHM (PA)
Phyllis Elder (GA)

Dugan-Tarango Middle School (NM)
Notre Dame de Lourdes (PA)
St Didacus School (CA)
Manatee Bay Elementary (FL)
Mountain View Elem School (NJ)
St Francis Desales School (PA)
Mountain View Elem School (NJ)
Central Intermediate School (LA)
Indian Trace Elem School (FL)
St Laurence School (PA)

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