With this story, First In Math News introduces a new feature, Winner’s Circle, where we introduce you to former champions and share their recent accomplishments.
We inaugurate our series with Janae Bell, 18, from Weston, Florida.
Bell, who hosts an exercise/fitness blog on Instagram, says that her training will be an asset—both physically and mentally—when she is at Harvard.
Being first, as well as the first, is comfortable for Janae Bell.
During the 2005-2006 school year, when Manatee Bay Elementary introduced the First In Math Online Program, Bell won the fifth-grade title and also placed first in the state.
Now, nine years later, Bell has accomplished another first by selecting to matriculate at Harvard University this fall. She will be the first student from Manatee Bay Elementary to attend the Ivy League university.
Bell considers competition “healthy” and “important.” “Personally, I wanted to do the best I could and believed there was always room for improvement and that I could always achieve better.”
When Manatee Bay Elementary introduced First In Math, Bell loved that it “was not the traditional way of learning.” Her parents knew that if she “wasn’t around,” she was solving problems and earning stickers.
According to her mother, Janet Bell, “Every day, Janae would come home from school and do her homework. First In Math really helped strengthen her basic math skills and fluidity. Something about it made her want to push herself and practice every day.”
“It’s a game that serves a positive purpose,” explains Bell. “It allows students to discover a passion for math and find their own way.”
In addition to enhancing her math skills, both Bell and her mother believe that FIM developed other life skill such as setting goals, meeting goals, time-management and self-organization.
All of these qualities have been of added importance during the past year as Bell navigates her responsibilities as Miss Broward County Outstanding Teen 2013. Her involvement with the pageant was the unexpected consequence of a devastating injury that limited her ability to pursue a career in dance.
A veteran pageant contestant encouraged Bell to participate, and in doing so, she realized that although she would not become a professional dancer, as initially intended, she could celebrate her passion for a healthy lifestyle, exercise and fitness. Bell created “Let’s Move It” as her contest platform and her persuasive presentation and responses during the interview portion of the pageant contributed to her earning the crown.
At Harvard, Bell will be involved with the Phillips Brooks House Association, a student-run organization that endeavors to meet community needs while advocating structural change. An advocate of community service since her days volunteering with the National Honor Society at Cypress Bay High School, Bell is looking forward to “putting myself into many different situations” in order to learn about what suits her best.
When asked to share some words of advice with other First In Math enthusiasts, Bell said,
“You can always keep going. Challenge yourself—if you keep going you will be surprised at the levels you are able to complete. My experience with the game surpassed my own expectations.”
We look forward to seeing what Bell will accomplish next and wish her great success during her years at Harvard.
Why underestimate how young our students can be, to love and excel in math? —Robert Sun
HAMAMATSU, JAPAN— When Aiko Yamauchi moved to the United States from Japan three years ago, she could not speak or understand English. She was, however, blessed with a love of mathematics—and lucky enough to be given a First In Math User ID by her new math teacher at Hershey Primary Elementary School.
Left: Aiko Yamauchi, 2014 #4 Player in the US, all grades, solving a Monu’s Path puzzle at her family’s home in Japan. Right: Aiko poses with her FIM All Star trophy.
Having already mastered division and multiplication when she was in kindergarten, the energetic first-grader was immediately engaged by the scope of activities and unique content on the site.
“Aiko has loved mathematics since she was young, and even though she was very busy with other activities, she enjoyed playing First In Math every day,” explains her proud father, Katsuya Yamauchi. While at Hershey ES, she also practiced swimming at the Hershey Aquatic Club and played violin in the Harrisburg Junior String Orchestra.
“Aiko earned 20,000 stickers in first grade, 32,000 in second grade and 54,819 in third grade,” says her father. The nearly 55,000-sticker total this year ranked her #4 in the nation among all grades, and earned her a FIM Top Ten National All Star Award.
Unfortunately, Yamauchi had to move back to Japan with her family just before the end of the 2014 school year—before she was able to receive her award. “We knew Aikio worked very hard and she deserved the award. With the help of Karen Westervelt, her teacher, we were able to get the award to her in Japan,” says FIM Project Coordinator Nancy Kane.
“My daughter was very happy to get the award,” says Yamauchi, who was eventually able to touch base with Kane to arrange the delivery. “Thank you everyone at First In Math so much for your efforts.”
Having become accustomed to life and school in the States, Aiko had to initially readjust to Japanese school, but she did have the continuity of access to First In Math. According to her father, she has transitioned quite rapidly and still enjoys the site. “The system and contents of FIM are really excellent, and as a father, it is my hope that students all over the world will be able to participate in the FIM program in the future.“
By Debra Knight, FIM advocate
SPENCER, OK—In May, I conducted an end-of-year First In Math program award ceremony at Green Pastures Elementary School in the Oklahoma City Pubic School District. Green Pastures is a struggling, inner city school that I communicated a lot with this year as they work diligently to improve their math program.
Among many of the wonderful students I met was first-grader Samuel Marshall. A smart, neat, huggable kid, his enthusiasm is contagious. He rose to the top of his school in the First in Math program, besting several fifth-graders and becoming the only player in the school to achieve FIM GENIUS status by earning more than 4,100 stickers. He was ecstatic when I told him that meant he had solved more than 12,000 math problems!
Posing for a picture with Sam during the award ceremony; Sam with his Award Certificate and a photo of the writing assignment. First-grade misspellings aside, I was absolutely amazed at the vocabulary of this six-year-old.
Samuel’s teacher, Rita Horton, told me that for a recent writing assignment she allowed each student to pick the topic. Sam decided to write about First in Math, and specifically to thank the creator of the program, Robert Sun. I asked Horton if I could get a copy of the assignment.
“First in Math is an adventure for me. It’s a journey for me to explore math. First in math to me is my way of learning my math and for being proud of my achievements and goals of being the first genius in the school. Thank you for giving me this opportunity to live in this country and thank you for making this program and giving us this chance to come to school. And I am happy for this school learning in the year of twenty fourteen. And helping us stay focused on first in math is my Dream.”
As much as this letter touched me, it meant even more to Bob Sun, because he understands better than most the challenges many urban children face. He and I agree wholeheartedly that these students—with the right tools and encouragement—have the courage and persistence it takes to succeed and to quickly get back on their feet after setbacks. As Bob says, “Urban kids have grit by the boatload, and grit will turn these young people into a wellspring of talent in the future.” (Read: Why Inner City Kids Have A Natural Learning Advantage)
School has been out for almost three weeks now, and checking in on the Green Pastures FIM homepage today, Samuel is still actively playing and earning stickers. Kudos to Sam, Horton, Principal Harry Bryant and the entire school for dedicating themselves to academic success!
"Mastery is played on a field that exists within, where results come from inner resources—our spirit, will, belief, focus and joy." —Sarah Lewis
NEWTOWN, PA—Big wins are often the result of meaningful collaborations. At Goodnoe Elementary in Bucks county, PA, Math Specialist Charyl Kerns Hills and student Ben Cramer have brought teamwork to a new level.
Left: Ben Cramer, founder of the Goodnoe FIM Boot Camp. Right: Cramer and Ethan Smith contemplate a solution to a tricky word problem from the First In Math site.
Cramer and Hills led their school to top-tier status in the First In Math Online Program, earning more than one million stickers during the 2013-2014 school year. Hills says she learned about the milestone accomplishment from Cramer, who calculated and monitored the stickers needed to reach that goal.
According to Hills, a math specialist for nearly 20 years, Ben deserves all the credit. “He dedicates his recess to run a First In Math ‘Boot Camp’ for any student in the school who is eager to play.”
Cramer, the top-ranked fifth grader at the school with nearly 23,000 stickers, was not always a math enthusiast. “In third grade, I thought the games were boring and a bit too complicated,” says Cramer. But in fourth grade, he noticed another student in his class had 17,000 stickers. “I thought, if he could do it, I could do it!”
That competitive spirit provided focus for Cramer. With support from Hills, he established his FIM Boot Camp, motivating peers with an initial goal of 4,000 stickers each. As a result of their experiences with First In Math, many Boot Camp graduates have come to realize what teachers already know: “Everybody can do math,” says Cramer.
Cramer’s strategy for reaching and maintaining his number-one position is “to play until I am ahead.” Since FIM provides students and educators with up-to-date statistics on all players, Cramer, who spends at least 45 minutes a day on the site, is always setting a new goal.
He is also encouraged by his fellow ‘Campers. Sessions are scheduled during recess because, according to these students, ‘recess can be boring.’ The group works as a team to solve problems projected onto a whiteboard. They instruct each other in various strategies and tricks, and share their enthusiasm for favorite games. According to Hills the new Rock, Paper, Scissors game has been a particular favorite, as are Pundi’s Puzzle, XYZ shuffle and Know & Show.
The students play at home as well, and agree that with a little practice, anyone can succeed at First In Math.
Cramer, whose competitive fire is also evident when he takes to the basketball court in winter or the baseball field in summer, explains that First In Math and sports are both competitive. “When you practice, you get better at everything. And, everything is connected to math. With math, you can help everybody win.”
This sentiment is echoed by Hills. “First In Math meets the needs of my students. It’s a way to impact math learning by motivating kids to achieve in a positive way. Ben and his Boot Camp are an ideal example of how the First In Math program allows students to grow mathematically and in other ways—encouraging them to be leaders and collaborators in and out of the classroom.”
A continuing series by former teacher and current FIM Implementation Specialist Shawn Collier
In my role as a First In Math Online Program Implementation Specialist, I am often asked ‘what is the correct way to deploy the program in a classroom setting?’ Although I have used First In Math as a third-grade teacher with inner city students, a math specialist with suburban students, and now as an employee with many different types of students, the question still makes me pause because there is no definitive answer.
Asa Packer teachers use FIM certificates and other incentives to highlight and recognize student achievement. (Certificates and other bulletin board materials can be downloaded at the FIM site.)
Because I have never been in your school, in your classrooms or with your students, I usually suggest a general path for teachers to follow, but also convey the fact that they will need to read the signs along the way—and possibly adjust course to meet the exact need of their students. In today’s high-stakes-testing educational landscape, it is rare to find administrators and teachers who are confident enough to do this. Among them is Asa Packer Elementary School.
During the past two years, Asa Packer has seen growing success in First In Math. This year they ranked #22 in the nation among approximately 5,000 schools—up significantly from their spot just outside the top 100 last year. As I studied their growth, I wanted to know how it was happening. What was their ‘correct way’? I decided to go to the source for the answer, Principal Jonathan Horvath.
As I spoke with Horvath—hoping to unearth some ultimate First In Math secret—I quickly realized there was a beautiful simplicity to his process. His secrets? Recognition. Autonomy. Trust. And, a lot of hard work.
Horvath takes the lead in announcing FIM Players and Teams of the Week, and awarding corresponding symbols of recognition, such as trophies, flags or badges. How, when, and why teachers use the program is a decision made by each teacher. So, while two fifth-grade classes engage with FIM over the course of a week, they may be partaking in separate activities, determined by the needs of the classroom.
The trust Horvath has in his staff and students to act autonomously—coupled with the high expectations set forth in his weekly recognitions—create an environment where students want to excel in math and begin to see themselves as lifelong learners.
While it may be easier to focus solely on grade-level standards, schools like Asa Packer have found ways to also focus on the attitude and ability of the student concerning academic achievement. In doing this, not only are they producing some great scores on tests, they produce students that have a belief in themselves and their own abilities. This is BIG. Sole focus on grade-level content only applies to one subject, one year. Affecting students’ attitudes will color all curricular objectives in a school for years to come. It will affect the culture of a school, not just the test scores of a school.
Horvath recognizes students and empowers teachers because he sees the bigger picture. Our test-driven environment often overlooks the ‘caring’ aspects of the school community because it is tough (if not impossible) to find data related to soft skills. It is also difficult to show change over time. But there is hope.
Like seedlings in springtime, schools across the country are sprouting a new focus: affecting student’s attitudes. Using programs like First In Math, schools such as Asa Packer have a staff and students who are leading the way and have been planting those seeds for years, producing healthy, intelligent, well-prepared students who appreciate the learning process.
by Robert Sun
EASTON, PA—Recently, I had an unexpected insight about mathematics. During a visit to an Israeli classroom where English was being taught as a second language, I observed a group of fourth-graders learning the 20 words assigned for that day. I saw how essential social interaction is when learning a language, and it reminded me of my own experience as a nine-year old struggling to learn English in my newly-adopted country.
Left: Rachel Gentely, Development Team Coordinator, Israel; Robert Sun; Suntex Executive Vice President Nan Ronis; Shoshi Nisan, Pedagogical Coordinator, Kadima Mada and Rebecca Levy, Project Writer. Right: Sun speaks with Tzila Levi Sneer, Education Director, Nazareth Illit Municipality.
Learning math is typically a much easier endeavor. With math, we are spared the years of effort needed to acquire an extensive vocabulary. You don’t have to know what each number means, only how it relates to other numbers and to how numbers connect.
One reason math is challenging for so many young people is because it is so rarely spoken. Math instruction traditionally focuses on the written component—textbooks, board work and worksheets. Contrast this to learning English. Although there is a written component—grammar, composition, reading—there is also constant interaction, feedback and encouragement from others through conversation.
I would like to see our education system place the same emphasis on achieving fluency in math as it does on language. I believe that as educators and as a society, we need to develop the idea of ‘social math’ – the use of spoken math to inspire the human interactions that provide the feedback and motivation to master fluency.
Encouraging children, from a very early age, to speak as well as write the language of mathematics, is one way we can begin to develop social math. Teachers can encourage their students to express themselves verbally using mathematical terms; even in early grades, children can be asked to explain what they want or mean using numbers or relationships between numbers. Anything that encourages them to talk about math and mathematical concepts is beneficial.
Many educators who are using First In Math in their classroom have integrated social math into their teaching. Using a whiteboard and engaging the class as a group to solve problems by explaining their thought process to each other is an effective way to encourage speaking math.
Now that I’ve gotten you thinking about the concept of social math, begin to take notice of how often you speak math throughout your day. How often do others use mathematical terms or language when they are communicating with you? Teachers—do you speak math with your students in the classroom? We are interested in learning more about your social math experiences. Please share your best practices for speaking math with us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Learn more about Robert Sun’s thoughts regarding social math and how to support our next generation in achieving math mastery and fluency here. Follow Bob on twitter @RobertSun24
CLARKSTON, GA—Dekalb County K-8 students exhibited their enthusiasm and mastery for math by solving more than 94 million math problems in seven months on the First In Math (FIM) Online Program website. One school, Indian Creek Elementary, achieved the top honor—ranking number one in the state for the "Top 100 Students" category, placing among the top 5 in the state for the "All Grades" category, and placing among the top 100 schools in the nation.
Indian Creek students work together on many class projects; FIM is an activity that motivates and excites individual students and entire classrooms.
Additional DeKalb County honors go to Austin Elementary School, home to the top three first grade teams in the state, Snapfinger Elementary, home to the number one 2nd grade player and Sagamore, home to the number one 4th grade player.
For all of these students, their accomplishment is the result of hours of practice and dedication, and of intrinsic motivation—the desire to engage in a task for its inherent pleasure and satisfaction, according to First In Math creator Robert Sun. “The students who achieved this goal believed in their capacity to learn and experienced first-hand that their efforts resulted in success and their success motivated them to keep striving. The joy and self-satisfaction they experienced is familiar to anyone who has mastered a new skill and been motivated to keep improving,” Sun explains.
Created in 2002, First In Math Online is a supplemental, web-based program that involved more than 5,000 schools and 1.5 million students across the country during the 2013-14 school year. In Georgia, more than 350 schools and 120,000 students participated this year. The program is designed to be dynamic and extremely customizable to each student’s needs. Comprehensive content is presented in a game format and engages all types of learners through a variety of options.
Shawn Collier, First In Math Implementation Specialist, was thrilled to learn about Indian Creek’s accomplishments. “I believe that our content can not be beat, however, the math we offer is just the tip of the iceberg. We offer parents a chance to feel proud of their children and to celebrate them for academic achievements, and we offer the public the opportunity to recognize these children, as well.”
Indian Creek is also home to Georgia’s #1- and #3-ranked fifth-grade teams, as well as the #3-ranked fifth-grader in the state. All students and teams were recognized at a special ceremony on May 15 attended by FIM Vice President Barbara Asteak and her colleague Brett Eaker.
Award ceremonies, as well as recognition for the Player of the Day and other accolades throughout the school year, are an important aspect of the First In Math culture, according to Asteak. “Recognition leads to pride and confidence among students and encourages them to see themselves as capable learners who are able to achieve their goals. It’s exciting for us to see the power of math transform students’ attitudes and engagement,” says Asteak.
SILVER SPRING, MD—In their first year of participation in the First In Math Online Program, Saint Francis International School captured the #1 spot in Maryland and ranked #24 in the National Top Ten competition among all grade levels.
Archdiocese of Washington Superintendent of Schools Deacon Bert L'Homme, Ph.D., joins SFIS administrators Br. Gerald Hopeck and Mrs. Patty Ruppert in distributing certificates and awards to students who achieved the FIM Mathematician level.
“We are so thrilled that our students have performed so well in this first year of deployment,” says Principal Tobias A. Harkleroad, M.Ed. Students in grades K through 8 were extremely motivated and every Team placed among the top 20 in the nation at their grade level. “The second-grade class was amazing, ranking #4 in the entire USA among all second-grade teams,” says Mr. Kevin Fosko, technology teacher and First in Math coordinator. Second-grader Mathew Dawit had the highest sticker-count in the school.
According to Harkleroad, First in Math was brought to Saint Francis International School in September of 2013 as part of an ongoing effort to strengthen students’ math skills. “We are a very diverse Catholic school—78% of our children have immigrant parents and 62% of our children qualify for free and reduced meals.” Harkleroad credits Franciscan Brother Gerald Hopeck, Co-Principal, for bringing First in Math to the Silver Spring school.
“I had experience using First in Math during a previous assignment at a Catholic school in Philadelphia where First in Math use was seen as a direct influence on increased standardized test scores in mathematics,” says Br. Gerald, who was the Assistant Principal at St. Thomas Aquinas School in Philadelphia in 2007. (Read: Terra Nova Scores increase after implementing the FIM program) “I think it can help push us toward our goal of becoming a Blue Ribbon School.”
“The students at Saint Francis enjoy using First in Math as a learning tool, but we also employed incentive strategies throughout the year to keep them excited about participating,” explains Hopeck, who says that even winter snow days were a big part of Saint Francis International School’s success. “On snow days Principal Harkleroad would issue challenges by Facebook and phone blasts, encouraging students and their parents to use the time at home to work on First in Math. We saw some of our biggest gains in the rankings on those snow days; snow days became math days!”
On May 5, Saint Francis presented all students with a trophy representing their achievement. Individually, 20 students who reached the Champion level and 10 reaching Grand Champion status received medals in recognition of their accomplishment. More than 50% of the students in the school reached the Mathematician-level goal, which FIM creator Robert Sun believes is key to a successful program. To honor their accomplishment, Sun is giving each of the students who reached the Mathematician level a limited Anniversary Edition 24 game—an incentive for sunny days to become math days as well!
EASTON, PA—You’ve heard their names before—actually, twice before. For the third consecutive year, sixth-grader Josephine Nguyen and teacher Matt Morse have earned the top spot in their respective categories in First In Math Online Program National Top Ten Competition.
Left: Josephine Nguyen cradles her three National #1 Player All Star awards. Right: Mathew Morse poses with several of his C.W. Dillard students.
To become the #1 player in the nation, Josephine earned more than 60,000 stickers by the end of the competition on April 30. FIM creator Robert Sun estimates she spent nearly 1,000 hours a year. “What is really amazing is the fact that Josephine completed every module on the site to perfection, managing to get the maximum number of stickers from each game," explains Sun.
"She has the focus and the drive to succeed. This is what she's passionate about," St. Cecilia honors math teacher Mary Cihak told The Philadelphia Inquirer Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Michael Vitez. An article titled “WHIZ KID” appeared in the Sunday edition of the prestigious Inquirer, and was also featured prominently on their website. (Read full article here)
Josephine says her passion for FIM is genuine, but she won't win next year. "I want to give other kids a chance."
Three-time Team Leader Player of the Year and winner of the Lola J. May Award, Mathew Morse, says it is hard to put into words how vital FIM has been to him. “I have not only seen growth in my students’ ability to calculate problems quicker, but I have also increased my own ability to calculate quicker.”
A California native, Morse says that he has stopped watching TV in the evening because he wants to keep his 57-year-old brain active. “FIM has increased my ability to keep my mind sharp. I feel one of the most important tasks of anyone over 50 is to find an activity that keeps your mind from slowing down. FIM is my tool for that. Some folks have Suduko or crossword puzzles. I have the First In Math program.”
Morse says that his C.W. Dillard Elementary students look forward to time in the lab working on FIM. “Each year the site adds new games. Each new game is outstanding. The games force students to use critical thinking skills to come up with answers that will reward them with the most stickers. Just like in life, we are rewarded for going above and beyond to come up with the best possible solution. FIM challenges the students to go beyond the normal math patterns and rewards them for doing more. This is a microcosm of their future.”
NEW ORLEANS, LA—First In Math Online Program representatives—including program creator Robert Sun—attended the 2014 NCTM Annual Meeting & Exposition April 9-12 in New Orleans. This year’s meeting theme was “Number and Operations: Be Radical and Get Real” and included more than 700 presentations covering a wide range of areas.
Robert Sun poses with old friends and new, including Jabali Sawicki (far left), Principal of Excellence Charter School in Brooklyn, NY. Middle photo (l to r): Representing Council rock SD in Newton, PA, are Math Specialist Anna LaForgia Kane, Elementary Math/Technology Integration Specialist Charyl Kerns and Mary Petetti Doherty, Math Specialist. Far right: Dr. Lya Snell, Math Coordinator for Henry County Public Schools in Georgia and Founder/CEO of Math Innovation, LLC.
“We are always excited to attend the nation's premier math education event,” says Sun, who explains that his goal this year was to talk with teachers about the need for students to learn to ‘Speak Mathematically’.
“The educators who attended were very focused and committed,” says FIM Customer Service Project Coordinator Nancy Kane. “We had a lot of quality conversations. It was nice to see loyal customers, and also share information about the 24® Game and FIM with potential customers. We saw educators from almost every state, and also met a fair amount of people from Canada.”
“It was also great to talk to current users who really understand the program,” says Suntex VP Barbara Asteak. “One teacher from Arizona could dissect the whole program and gave a very thorough analysis of—and insight into—our assessment features.”
“Of course, people always enjoy meeting Bob,” adds Kane. “He posed for photos and signed lots of autographs, many for teachers who played the 24 game as students. One person, Jabali Sawicki, founder of Brooklyn’s Excellence Charter School, even came to the booth and told Bob that the 24 Game was the best gift under the Christmas tree when he was in third grade.”
On Friday, Sun and FIM Ambassador Cred Dobson spoke to a crowd of more than 50 educators during one of the last afternoon sessions. “Closing the Achievement Gap with Deep Practice” was the topic of discussion. It was a busy week for Dobson, who received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Benjamin Banneker Association at a breakfast sponsored by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on April 11. (BBA Award) Sun also received recognition and a special plaque for providing support to the association; his FIM web designers created and implemented an updated interface for the BBA website.
The First In Math program is headquartered in Easton, Pennsylvania, and four days in Louisiana was a refreshing change for the group of winter-weary northerners. “The beautiful weather was certainly welcome, and New Orleans is such a fun city to explore,” says Kane. The festive spirit and southern hospitality were evident everywhere—inside and outside of the conference setting.”
Planning for the 2015 conference, located in Boston, Massachusetts, is already underway. The theme, Reaching Today’s Students Through Innovative Teaching is a perfect fit with our First In Math philosophy and approach to education.
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