1.What motivated you to write Math Problem Solving in Action, 3-5?
I love Word Problems. I see students struggling with word problems everywhere. I see teachers struggling to teach them. So I wrote the book to offer insights into the process that I have picked up from great educators and spunky students along the way.
2. The subtitle of the book is “Getting Students to Love Word Problems.” Why do you think so many students find word problems challenging, and what can be done to make them more exciting?
I think that word problems are so hard because they are not based in our students' lived realities most of the time. We have to start right where students live and then work towards generalizing the concepts. The research shows us that students are interested and motivated to learn when it is about them and their lives. They understand the math when it is connected to their “everyday.” I have seen students do really challenging math when they understand the context. All students can love word problems, when they understand them. I also talk in the book about doing math that is interesting. Capturing students’ attention with funny word problems and things about animals and people and places that capture the imagination.
3.Aside from student motivation, why do you think problem solving is such a tricky thing to teach?
Teaching word problems as practice rather than as an “answer-getting” activity is the key. Too often, we focus on the answer. As Phil Daro states, “the answer is necessary but not sufficient.” Students end up getting answers that they don’t even understand. Problem solving has to be taught as a process/practice where students learn to visualize, summarize, make a plan, solve one way and check another, and explain their thinking.
4.What is your favorite strategy from the book and why?
I love the book. I pushed my own pedagogy talking about getting students to write and solve word problems based on fascinating things in real life. I also really like the chapter about the “100 word problem” challenge whereby students work towards solving 100 word problems by the end of the year (on their own).
5.After this 3-5 book, you’ll be doing a version for K-2 teachers (out later this summer). Why is it important to start students with problem solving at a young age?
We have to catch them when they are young! Little kids love stories. They are really good at telling them when given the right contexts and props (puppets, real things etc.). If we can get them to love them at a young age, then they won’t be afraid of them later on.
6.This book is part of your “In Action” series, which includes Guided Math in Action, Math Workshop in Action, Math Running Records in Action, and Math Workstations in Action (forthcoming). What do you want teachers to know about the series and how it will help them in the classroom?
I wrote this series because I believe that the more we know, the better we do! Every time I write a book, I learn more stuff! I want teachers to know that Math should be fun, challenging, differentiated, developmentally-appropriate, rigorous and standards-based.
7.Tell us one of your favorite stories about a student you’ve worked with.
One of my favorite stories about solving word problems is a day I spent in the Bronx with some 5th graders. We were working on dividing decimals. I worked with the students on problems about their daily lives. We told several stories about the local bodega and stopping by and buying different things. The students were solving the problems without any difficulty. Then, we introduced the algorithm. They got it! Afterwards, we asked the students what did they think of dividing decimals. Almost everyone said that they thought it was easy. Why? Because they understood what they were doing! Students can make sense of problems when problems make sense to students.
8.What or who inspired you to become an educator?
I fell into teaching. I substituted for 1 year, loved it and the rest is history. I had great mentors who laid the foundation for my understanding, Debbie DeSmith (my first principal) Coco Aguirre (my mentor) and Lin Goodwin and Anne Sabatini (professors).
9.What has been one of the proudest moments of your education career so far?
I am proud of the work I do with teachers. I am proud of the educators I work with everyday, who are smart, hard-working and persevering. I am honored to do the work I do.
10.And finally, please tell us your favorite thing about being in Education in one word.
Students! I love working with students! They bring me joy!
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Nicki Newton has been an educator for 30 years, working both nationally and internationally, with students of all ages. She has worked on developing Math Workshop and Guided Math Institutes around the country. She is also an avid blogger (www.guidedmath.wordpress.com), facebooker (Guided Math 123) tweeter (@drnickimath), Pinterest pinner (www.pinterest.com/drnicki7), and YouTuber (Dr. Nicki YouTube channel).