Anyone who has difficulty calculating numbers, percentages or fractions, can empathize with students who groan at the thought of math classes and the prospect of high school algebra. For some students, simple math equations may as well be quantum mechanics. Many other students (like many adults) calculate slowly because they’ve not learned to manipulate numbers algebraically.

For one week each summer, the Naperville Education Foundation (NEF) sponsors a Math Camp designed to speed students calculation abilities and prevent a lifetime of finger counting. During the 90-minute classes, six and seventh grade students hone their calculation skills. Math Camp teachers for Summer 2015 were: Kate Krenek and Julie Keleghan at Lincoln Junior High; Kim Persin and Dumler Chavous at Washington; Paula Smith and Cheryl Nicoski at Madison; Rob Sacher and Karin Mikicich at Kennedy; and Deb Harris soloed at Jefferson.

The Math Camp project is coordinated by Jennifer Donatelli, director of curriculum and instruction for Naperville School District 203. In 2015, the program was observed and reviewed by Sarah Dumler, a sophomore at North Central College.

“All of the teachers at the Math Camps had the same goal of making math more accessible to…students,” Dumler said, adding that “The majority of the camps were targeted toward incoming sixth grade students, making the students feel more comfortable and confident transitioning to a new school.” Not all of the students are struggling in math, though fifth grade teachers direct slower students into the program.

Math Camp is a refreshing departure from the static, desk- and computer-based instruction typical of the regular school year; rather, the goal is to get participants to learn through games. Classes are small and intimate, providing plenty of one-on-one instruction. “In the summertime, you want to get kids comfortable and confident,” Lincoln’s. Krenek explained, adding that this more intimate and fun setting is a boon to kids who are verbal and like to talk though things. “Kids who struggle with math often are more kinesthetic…they like to move, rather than sit at a desk,” she said.

Algebra? Fun? Why not!

Krenek said that given the right setting, students actually enjoy learning basic algebraic equations in preparation for the more rigorous high school curriculum. “Often,” she said, “kids don’t have the numbers foundation, so they struggle when they get to us in sixth grade. Being able to take (numbers) apart is key, and using math games speeds their comprehension.”

She also works to get parents and students to play math games together, so that the game structure continues into the school year’s strategic math program.

In an interview, Dumler expressed admiration for the Math Camp program’s mix of math games. “They had games mixing fractions and algebraic concepts that allowed students to learn subconsciously, and to recognize patterns, rather than relying on rote memorization. The students were engaged, focused, and having fun. I was really impressed by how the teachers were able to connect with the students; all the teachers volunteered to take on this work, and they did a good job of making the students comfortable.”

We spoke with two of the students who attended this summer’s Math Camp at Lincoln Junior High, sixth graders Kyle Davenport and Kylie Kich. Kylie said she was doing well in math in fifth grade, but signed up for Math Camp to improve her competence. “I had the advantage of having a father who was a math whiz,” Kylie said, noting that he did not do her homework for her in elementary school.

Kyle’s mother sent him to Math Camp “because she thought I needed it, but I didn’t think I needed it (very) much,” he told us. “I knew my fractions, but now I can do them a lot faster; Math Camp helped me a lot because it was in the form of games.”

Both said they would go through the program again, and Kylie wished that it was longer than one week.

The Naperville Education Foundation (NEF) donates approximately $6,700 to the Math Camp program annually. Teachers are paid a reduced “curriculum rate,” with the rest of the money going toward classroom supplies, according to Donatelli.

Dumler feels the program would benefit by having them compare notes and swap ideas. “And maybe in the spring, they could go to each elementary school and do like a math night, or a littler preview night to involve the parents and student…maybe get more attendance.”

At Jefferson, Deb Harris began with a work session to improve their understanding of decimals, preparatory to doing math games the rest of the week. A quiz was given after each lesson. Students worked in pairs, or one-on-one with Harris.

At Kennedy, incoming students were judged to be weakest at math facts and connecting decimals and fractions. They played a game called “Block 4,” where the goal is to get four numbers in succession, or in a square, on a Sudoku-like game sheet. Another game involved rolling several dice and using the pip combinations to build the largest numbers using different place values (the positions of digits within numbers; each place has a value of 10 times the place to its right).

At Madison Junior High, students were encouraged to share math concepts with a parent or family member; students who brought a signed sheet to school the next day would be entered into a raffle offering small prizes.

Students at Washington’s Math Camp began their sessions by playing math games on classroom computers as they waited for other students to arrive. Then, Persin and Chavous asked them to recall what they learned the previous day. This kept them aware of new concepts such as, “the easiest place to start when reading decimals.” Dumler said that students were given a worksheet to fill out reviewing place value and number value. The worksheet format was written on the whiteboard so that students could fill in the answers together. At the end of the class, students enjoyed playing “decimal bingo.”

Back at Lincoln, Kate Krenek wants to draw more students into Math Camp. “I want the doors to be open…the seats to be full. Small class sizes are helpful, but one year we did have 40 kids in one room, and it kept both of us busy,” she said, adding that “30 students would be great.” This summer, Lincoln invited about 30 students to Math Camp…14 attended. Washington invited 20 and got seven; Kennedy invited 15 and got 10; of the 42 invited to Jefferson, 11 attended; and of the 25 invited to Madison’s program, 12 completed the course.

In the conclusion of her report, Dumler said she was impressed with all five Math Camps and the positive affect they had on students. “The teachers were invested in the work they were doing, and the students were engaged in the classroom, making it a successful experience for all involved.”

Sarah Dumler

Students Kylie Kich and Kyle Davenport build their pre-algebra skills by playing a card game called “Speed.” Their teacher, Kate Krenek, looks on.

Students Kylie Kich and Kyle Davenport build their pre-algebra skills by playing a card game called “Speed.” Their teacher, Kate Krenek, looks on.

The ladder game involves using a ladder diagram and a deck of numbered cards to make simple equations. You have to come up with an equation to equal whatever rung of the ladder you are on.

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