When you walk into Toi Smith’s classroom, you can’t help but feel excited about math, even if you don’t like math.
Smith herself even admitted that she had never enjoyed math until she began working as a math interventionist at Mancos Elementary, but after she began working with the students, a love of math blossomed.
“I have always been afraid of math,” Smith said. “So when I was asked, I was like, ‘Well, I could give it a try.’ And I tell you, it has become my favorite. This has become my favorite job that I’ve had working with kids so far. I just love to see the growth and those little light bulbs go off when they figure things out.”
Thirty students in kindergarten to fifth grade participate in Smith’s math intervention class, but she doesn’t only work with those who are struggling.
Students who excel in math classes, to the point they are bored and in need of a challenge, also come to Smith’s classroom, where she works to challenge their budding math skills.
Smith told the story of a second grader in her class working on a project to host his soccer tournament. And while his tournament is only imaginary, he must call referees and other professionals in that field to determine how much he will have to charge for tickets to adequately pay his referees, have concessions, pay rent, bills and more.
Her advanced fifth graders will be working on sixth-grade-level math during a zombie apocalypse, interviewing other teachers and faculty who have developed symptoms, and students use math skills to determine who will survive the apocalypse.
The fun doesn’t stop there. Smith understands that children who struggle in and often hate math need to learn to do math without realizing they’re doing math. That’s where Smith’s imagination, and the imagination of her students, gets to blossom.
“My job is to help them love math without them realize that they’re doing it. Some kids don’t like math. What do they like?” Smith asked. “I look for ways to connect to what my students love to the math topic that is confounding them.”
There are five main ways Smith accomplishes this. These ways are to use hands-on and interactive activities, encourage student input, show how math connects to real-life situations, utilize collaboration and incorporate different learning styles knowing students learn in different ways. That can include teaching with visual aids, songs and more.
Smith’s kindergarten students, which she referred to as her “s’mores unit,” learned math with s’more building blocks, counting little graham crackers, chocolate chips and marshmallows.
“Their little minds had something besides that little piece of paper with two plus four and six plus eight,” Smith said.
Once they mastered the skills, they roasted s’mores in class as a celebration.
The first graders learned math by walking with dinosaurs. Smith measured the length of various dinosaurs in the elementary school’s hallways, from the smallest dinosaur (the velociraptor) to the biggest (the brontosaurus), and students measured the dinosaurs in inches, feet and yards.
Third graders designed and built their own zoos, researching and choosing which animals would be part of their zoo. They also had to create perimeter graphs, determined the area for each animal’s enclosure and more.
Now that some of her groups have mastered certain elements, they will move on to other areas in need of improvement. Smith is brainstorming on how to make these new math lessons fun for her students.
Some students will create their own cupcake shop, while others will create a pizza shop. At the end of the unit, students will be able to make their own pizzas and cupcakes, applying the skills they’ve learned while in the unit.
“They have to be sure to get all the ingredients rights and tablespoons, teaspoons, ounces. I let them do it; I don’t try to correct it. If their cupcakes are delicious that means they measured right,” Smith said.
While math is something Smith loves now, writing and poetry were her first love.
She hasn’t abandoned her love of poetry, however. In Smith’s classroom, there was a board with a math poem. Smith said it’s just another way she tries to engage the mind of her students.
“I do a different poem each week,” she said. “This one is ‘Eleven Red Apples.’ They have to count the apples that have fallen our of the tree, and then they’ll graph to decide if they like red apples, yellow apples or green apples. It’s just reinforcing those counting skills without them even knowing that they’re learning.”
Smith said it makes her happy to see her students excited to be in her class and eager to learn new math skills.
Children who are part of Smith’s math intervention don’t leave the program until they head to middle school, ensuring they don’t get lost in the shuffle of large math classes where they can become easily overwhelmed.
Because each child has different struggles when it comes to math, Smith creates an individual plan for each student, tailoring the lessons and assessments to their specific needs.
Each Monday, students take an assessment to determine how they are improving, and what areas they need more help in. They must pass the assessment three weeks in a row before Smith considers the skill mastered.
And the program is helping.
According to a testing chart provided by Smith, six of the children in math intervention were considered high risk at the beginning of the program. Now, that number is down to one, with the previous high risk students showed marked improvement.
Out of the 30 who are part of the program, 28 have shown a significant increase in their math skills and scores.
Smith noted she has done much research into math intervention and how it positively impacts students who are enrolled in such programs. Studies show students involved in math intervention grow in confidence and self-esteem, as well as regaining confidence and motivation.
“My job is to make sure that these kids find a love for math, and that I can get these kids comfortable enough that eventually they can go back to a regular classroom setting and just blast off,” she said.
Smith spoke to the Mancos School District RE-6 Board of Education at their last meeting, informing them of how students were doing in the program, and asking for funding to keep the class going. Because this program was created during COVID-19, there is no longer funding in place to keep it running long-term.
Smith is hoping the board will allocate the funds to continue the program, especially because of how students are flourishing in the program.
She has also applied for a grant.
“I strongly encourage the school board to consider the importance of the math intervention program and to continue funding for this valuable resource,” Smith said at the meeting. “The success of our students is paramount, and this program is making a real difference in the lives of the students it serves.”