FIM News

Florida Student Shares His Passion for First In Math

PANAMA CITY BEACH, FL—Nine-year-old Kurt Pfahl, a student at Breakfast Point Academy, has been involved with First in Math Online since first grade, but these days the newly-minted third-grader is busy generating a lot of buzz about the innovative math program throughout Bay District Schools.

Kurt Pfahl with Bay District Schools Superintendent, William V. Husfelt
Kurt Pfahl with Bay District Schools Superintendent, William V. Husfelt, in 2018.

His father, Chris Pfahl, describes Kurt as very competitive, and says it was natural that when he began using First in Math’s digital-gaming format his desire to win would become a dedication to excellence. Kurt set ‘having the most points in his class’ as an initial goal. He accomplished that objective with relative ease, then adjusted his aim toward being #1 in his school. He hit that target, too.

“After that, Kurt told me there was a family-involvement option called Family Link and asked if we could team up and try to be the best Family Team in the entire District. I reluctantly agreed, but I had no idea what I was getting into,” laughs Pfahl. Their partnership culminated in both Individual and Family Top 10s within the District, and a #2 State and #8 National Ranking among all second-graders. 

At the same time, something else began to happen. Something magical. “Kurt’s favorite thing in the world to do is play basketball, which is great because it allows me to spend extra time with him as the coach of our local beach recreation league,” explains Pfahl. “I walked into basketball practice one day and asked my son and another boy to get off their tablets and start warming up. They asked for two more minutes to level-up on First in Math—that’s when I knew it was serious.”

Pfahl says that he saw math become a cool competition between kids who were not overly interested in it before. “Soon soccer players who had never played it started to use it and compete. When others saw my son succeed—and have fun—a very unique mix of athletes and scholars began to compete and learn. This program gives all types of kids an opportunity to interact with their peers in a positive way about math.”

When asked if he could give any advice to new players, Kurt answered like a true competitor: “If you want to get stickers quickly, go after VIF’s (Very Important Facts) and under the Bonus Module try the Estimation game. You can jam out a lot of stickers on those.”

Pfahl credits Kurt’s First grade teacher, Renee Miller, for sparking his early interest in math, and applauds Bay District Schools Mathematics Instructional Specialist, Cylle Rowell, and the entire team at BDS for bringing First In Math into the curriculum. “My son is a good student in mathematics, but this app has made him a great student.”

Editor’s note: Rowell was in the early stages of discussion about organizing a district-wide FIM event and award ceremony for this year, but that event will be delayed due to local devastation from Hurricane Michael. She is encouraged by the level of involvement First In Math can generate, and remains excited to help students and promote math achievement in the community.


You've Got (First In Math) Mail!

EASTON, PA—First In Math is excited to announce our new Notifications System, designed to keep Teachers, Principals and Administrators up-to-date about everything in the First In Math universe.

“This is great way for educators to get important information specific to them, as well as communication intended for everyone, like announcements of new games, new features, or links to online PD,” says Suntex Executive Vice President Nan Ronis.


A clickable MAIL icon now appears on each educator’s Homepage whenever there is a message waiting.

According to Ronis, the FIM Notification System allows educators to check their FIM “inbox” at any time, mark messages as read, and even scroll through or search an archive of already-read messages. “This will be an extremely valuable feature, allowing us to communicate useful information to everyone in a timely manner.”

If you have a FIM Educator or Admin User ID, log in to your Homepage now to view your first Notification. Click the link in the message for a full overview of this new upgrade.


First In Math Unveils Social Engagement Award

EASTON, PA—First In Math Online has unveiled a new Spirit In Education™ Award to support the effort educators, students and parents are making to create energy and excitement around math on Social Media.

The award will be announced electronically via Twitter, Facebook and Instagram—to an educator, school, parent or student who generates buzz and positive feedback about Math on Social Media.

First In Math creator, Robert Sun (Twitter: @RobertSun), has long espoused the importance of talking about math in a positive way. “When we speak the language of math with vibrancy and passion, we inspire our children to explore the rich opportunities offered by this essential and universal form of communication.”

In many cases, a child’s day-to-day interactions can affect how they perceive math, explains Sun. “Negative influences from outside the classroom can profoundly complicate learning. But, if students are also exposed to positive energy and believe that they can grasp a subject, they will.”

First In Math India CEO, Monca Patel (Twitter: @AboutImpact), agrees. “Let us all do our best to create an environment where mathematics becomes a pursuit to be enjoyed. I am so excited that we will be recognizing those who speak about the positives every day.”

Follow us on Twitter! @FirstInMath


First in Math Brings Unique Experience To Romania

Originally published in 2007

DROBETA TURNU-SEVERIN, ROMANIA–A relatively small Romanian town along the shore of the Danube river is home to the first East European school to offer its students access to the First in Math® Online Program.

Gheorghe Titeica High/Middle School teacher, Irina Zaman, began using First in Math with 15 students from one of her seventh-grade classes in 2007. Most Romanian classrooms do not have computers, so students played at home or made visits to the school's computer lab during breaks or after school. Within a few days, Zaman noticed students discussing game strategy and following each other's scores—students with lower scores were even being ‘tutored' by higher-scoring students. Soon, an amused Zaman was answering student questions such as ‘Can we go to the lab to play FIM during other teachers' classes, if they're boring?'

"FIM's user-friendly and entertaining interface makes my students feel they are ‘playing' when working on the site, which cannot be said about most of their homework," says Zaman.


Irina Zaman is interviewed by a Romanian TV news crew,
as her team uses First In Math in the computer lab.

"Completing FIM activities requires basic math knowledge as well as imagination, creativity, and attention to detail," according to Zaman. "I'm overwhelmed by the enthusiastic response from my students and their parents, and am pleasantly surprised to see how quickly my students got into the Top 100. My students have never been more excited about math, and I am extremely grateful for that!"

When word got out that Titeica students were competing online in a math contest and that they could compare their scores to those of American students, one of the local TV stations came to interview Zaman and her team. Local newspapers followed suit, printing weekly updates of Titeica students' ranking in FIM Top 100. Zaman hopes that all this publicity will bring more support for an idea she already believes—that math can be exciting and fascinating.

The initial 15 students received access through a grant offered by Suntex through the Center for Mathematics, Science, and Computer Education at Rutgers University in New Jersey. However, the students and parents interested in gaining access to First in Math were so keen to use the program that they offered to pay for access themselves. And so, starting in January 2008, a new group of Romanian students will combine math with play, and find themselves immersed in the First in Math universe!


Empowering A Special Child: One Family’s
Journey of Transformation

BETHLEHEM, PA—Raising a child with special needs can be a rollercoaster of emotion for parents, according to First In Math India CEO, Monica Patel. Her son, Shonak, was diagnosed with high-functioning Autism nearly 20 years ago.

Shonak Patel and his mother, Monica.
First In Math India CEO, Monica Patel, and her son, Shonak.

“Unfortunately, at that time in India and overall, there was a lack of understanding about special-needs children,” explains Patel. School was soon a social, emotional and academic struggle. She and her husband, Pulkesh, decided their son needed a more inclusive social structure along with better education options—and made a bold move all the way to the United States, settling in Bethlehem, PA.

At his new school, Shonak discovered a love for mathematics—and flourished. He had found his niche. In sixth grade, his math teacher encouraged him to participate in the First In Math Online program, and he eventually bested 600,000 students to become the #1 player in the nation, all grades, in 2006.

“For the first time, hundreds of his middle school peers stood up to applaud him and in that moment he went from being invisible to becoming the pride of his school and the local community,” says Patel, who, more than 10 years later, is still visibly moved.

The experience with First In Math was such a powerful one, she eventually introduced the program to India, becoming CEO of First in Math India Pvt. Ltd., in 2014. “When I share Shonak’s success story with people, I also make sure that they understand First In Math is for ALL students—average, gifted, struggling, urban or rural,” says Patel. “A program such as this has the power to work for all our children and it would be a shame to see it get boxed-in to one category.”

While she has been preaching the gospel of First In Math for years, only recently has Patel been willing to share her family’s private journey. “My personal experience is a small part of this, but if I can help any family I am willing to talk about it.” After moving to the U.S., Patel obtained a Masters degree in Special Education from Lehigh University, and says that fully embracing and accepting her son’s autism came only after her own education and research. “It is hard to admit now, but no challenge was greater for us than my initial years spent in complete denial about his Autism.”

Now 24, Shonak is acknowledged as a top mathematician, and is ready to graduate from Carnegie Mellon University. He was recently featured in a PARENTS WORLD cover story in India. “It was making a connection, in his case with math, that motivated him in every aspect of life,” says Patel, who urges parents to help their child identify the interests he or she chooses. “Find the best tools to hone their skills until excellence becomes a way of life, and autism is carried with pride.”


First In Math Champions, Then and Now: James O'Shea

EASTON, PA—Eight years ago, eighth-grader James O'Shea outperformed more than 500,000 of his peers to claim the title of #1 Player Nationwide—all grades—in the First In Math® Online Program for the 2009-2010 school year. It was his third and final appearance in the prestigious National Top Ten.

In 2010 and in 2018 - James O'Shea and Robert Sun 
James O'Shea and First In Math creator, Robert Sun - 2010 and 2018

Fast-forward to 2018. O’Shea, home from college on winter break, is sitting across the table from one of his mentors, creator of the First In Math online program, Robert Sun, reminiscing about his FIM days and discussing future plans.

The busy Economics and Pre-Health double major graduates from Notre Dame in the Spring, where he is also an undergrad Teaching Assistant for both biology and statistics. “It's crazy how time has passed so quickly since my days playing First In Math. I was looking through the website the other day, and it's incredible how much it has changed. There are so many more games and topics for kids to explore. It's great how big the program has become, and its user base has exploded.”

O'Shea is a member of Omicron Delta Epsilon, one of the world's largest academic honor societies, and will attend medical school at Thomas Jefferson University after graduation. “I'm so excited, becoming a physician has always been my long-term goal,” says O'Shea. “I'm very fortunate to be attending right out of college.

Sun invited him to take a peek at some new games in development, including coding activities in the new Computational Thinking (CT World) module. “I'm very excited that First In Math is including a coding aspect on the site; through my coursework, I've found that it's incredibly applicable across all fields. I just took a coding class this past semester. I wasn't supposed to be there because it was a IT majors-only class, but I was persuasive,” laughs O’Shea. “I learned about R and SQL and fell in love with it.”

But he says he’ll never forget the skills he practiced—and the fun he had—with First In Math. “When I saw my little brother Justin at the airport, the first thing he said to me was, ‘James! Guess how many stickers I have in First in Math!’ and wow, that brought back a lot of fond memories. My parents never forced me to compete, I did it because it was fun challenging myself, and it’s the same for Justin. He told me that he is top 20 in the nation for all grades and I'm so proud of him, he's been working really hard. He’s a third grader, and already well known as the ‘First in Math guy’ at his school.

Sometimes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.


First In Math Helps Retired Army Veteran
And Family Look to the Future

RIALTO, CA—At First In Math we receive letters, emails and phone calls every day. Some contain constructive criticism, some contain praise, and some touch our hearts in remarkable ways. One such email was forwarded to us by Eva Serrato, Academic Agent, Math/Science and College & Career Pathways for the Rialto Unified School District.


Sgt. H. and his wife. “I always get the credit for my service, but she watches over me in ways no one else would and really makes it all happen.”

In a communication to Dr. Monte Stewart, Principal of Elizabeth T. Hughbanks Elementary in Rialto, a happy parent shared that he was very excited his son received a First In Math Online program User ID and Password. “Thank you soooooooooooooo much for Michael’s account,” wrote US Army Sgt. H. “I'm ecstatic, as this program has given me a purpose since being home with my children.”

Days earlier, Serrato had asked local First In Math representative, Jill Henderson, to help her enroll just one more Kindergarten student in FIM. “Jill took care of it immediately,” says Serrato. “I didn’t know how important that request was until I read the Sgt.’s email.”

Sgt. H., who always wanted to be an engineer, joined the Army National Guard in 2000 as an Infantryman and was activated to Kuwait after the 9/11 attack. He did three combat tours in Iraq, but in 2006 was severely injured when his vehicle was hit by an IED (Improvised Explosive Device).

He awoke in a Baghdad ER with little to no memory of the attack or the days leading up to it. Severe injuries left his memory extremely compromised and his high-level math skills nearly extinct. The combat veteran, who used to deal with calculus and trigonometry, was left barely able to do multiplication.  “I didn’t arrive home the same. PTSD, TBI, chronic pain, you name it, I had/have it. I fight each day to overcome these obstacles.”

In 2017, he was medically retired, having served nearly 17 years. “A that point I was doing all I could to hang on to what I knew,” explains Sgt. H. “I went from being a frontline, hardened, combat-infantry soldier to learning how to be a full-time, stay-at-home dad on a fixed income. And I thought combat was tough!”

He didn’t leave the house very often, but one day his wife convinced him to attend a school award presentation “Some kids got a First In Math Award and they were talking about ‘stickers’ and things I didn't understand. I thought, what is this program every teacher is praising? So, I got on First In Math and went through every game I could, learning everything I could about it when, like an explosion—pun intended—it hit me! I remembered I used to be able to do high levels of math.”

“I realized that it's the basics that matter, the foundation that counts, so from that point on my son Joshua and I did all we could to challenge ourselves on First In Math. I know that life is a process full of growth potential and littered with constant failures, and it will take hard work and effort to overcome those failures. But we were determined to have fun, enjoy the program, and most important appreciate our precious time here on earth together.”

“I'm still unable to recall and hold onto many things, but through much practice, effort, hard work and time—and the support of my beautiful wife and mother of our six children—I'm grateful just for the opportunity to remember any little things and be in the present with my family.”

A few months later at the next awards presentation, Joshua was awarded a FIM plaque for being #1 in the Rialto Unified School District among all grades! He was also ranked #1 in the State and #7 in the Nation at his grade level. “This year, he’s currently #1 in CA among third graders,” says the proud father, noting that Hughbanks recently promoted him to fourth-grade math.

Sgt. H. explains that the letter he wrote to Dr. Stewart was about Joshua’s younger brother, Michael, who is now five, and loving First In Math. “He’s doing addition and subtraction easily and going strong because of the inspiration and hard work of his brother, I am so proud of him.” But this dedicated dad says that it wasn't until he saw his kids using First In Math that it inspired him to get back on the horse and relearn math.

“First In Math gave me a platform to work with. I tried flash cards, other programs, everything and just lost hope because nothing worked. FIM was the direction and guide I needed to help me teach and guide my children. It is great therapy for me daily watching my children excel in the knowledge I lost years ago.”

 “Sgt. H.’s story is so inspiring, and I applaud his incredible courage,” says Dr. Stewart. “As educators, we may not always realize how one small action we take—or curriculum support we offer—can impact the lives of others. Hearing something like this only strengthens my commitment to the school and to every student, one child at a time.”  


Editor’s note: In the interest of privacy, we have been asked to substitute “Sgt. H.” in place of an actual name, and we deeply respect Sgt. H.’s desire to dedicate this piece “to my fallen brother and sisters, to those still faithfully serving and who have served—both in military and public safety—I wake up every day thanks to them.”


Happy Holidays!

Happy Holidays - 2017


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


See More Articles in the News Archive


FIM 2018 Champion:

DANIEL WANG, Jr.

2018 Honorable Mention

Players
Daniel Wang, Jr (PA) - Champion
Derek Garcia Rodriguez (MA)
Ayan Swain (NJ)
Neel Anand (VA)
Samantha Brown (PA)
Vy Trihn-Nguyen (PA)
Anagha Kannurpatti (PA)
Iris Fan (FL)
Sora Tanaka (FL)
Abigail Barson (PA)

Team Leaders
Jeff Keys (PA)
Samuel Allison (FL)
Annejeanette M. Washington (FL)
Lisa Weingartner (FL)
Vina Evans (GA)
Erin Schwartz (MA)
Tyrail Thomas (GA)
Jennifer Nordyke (MA)
Earl Boyles (GA)
Denise Laudenslager (PA)

TOP EDUCATOR PLAYERS
Susan Whited (VA)
Chris Sakers (MD)
Carol A. Lauck (PA)
Allison Allen (FL)
Mary Higgins (PA)
Phyllis Elder (GA)
Jeffrey Markham (PA)
William Hanna (NM)
Linda Isherwood (PA)
Becky Keifer (FL)

Schools
Notre Dame de Lourdes School (PA)
Dugan-Tarango Middle School (NM)
Manatee Bay Elementary School (FL)
Tracy Elementary School (MA)
St. Francis de Sales School (PA)
St. Laurence School (PA)
Fairview Elementary School (GA)
Central Intermediate School (LA)
St. Didacus School (CA)
Baker Elementary School (MA)

Visit the First in Math®
Hall of Fame!


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