Blue Valley students find the wonder, joy and beauty in math

4th grader working on math problem


Blue Valley students are finding the wonder, joy and beauty in math and how to apply a mathematical lens to the world around them. 


Inside Blue Valley classrooms, students are excited about math whether they are working on fractions, multiplication or division. 


Working in pairs or small groups, students share ideas on different solutions to math problems. 


When asked to share their solution with the class, students eagerly raise their hands, excited to show their peers the answer to a math problem. 


Many classrooms participate in “gallery walks” where the students walk around the classroom to see their peers’ solutions. 


Students aren’t just using a formula to arrive at an answer. They are experiencing hands-on instruction, using colors and drawing solutions as a way to effectively visualize a solution, leading to the ability to connect mathematical ideas together. 


The teaching and learning of math in Blue Valley have students engaged, working collaboratively, creatively and finding flexibility within a math problem. 


“When you walk into a classroom, we hope that you see kids in a group, working together, brainstorming different ways to solve a problem, using their intuition, using what they already know and what they have learned and then creatively, collaboratively coming up with a response,” said Holly McCarty, Blue Valley’s math and physical education district coordinator. 


Students discover there are multiple ways to find an answer to a math problem and identify patterns they can then apply in the real world. 


A student asked to solve 24 divided by six might draw 10 different pictures of how to solve the problem instead of writing “four” without an explanation. 


Intuition is at the forefront of math instruction and allows students to learn how to break apart a math problem instead of being told a step-by-step solution. 


“Kids are naturally curious and they are naturally curious about numbers,” McCarty said. “We have to keep that alive.”


Harmony Elementary teacher Holly Zahner working with students on math


Cedar Hills is just one Blue Valley school at the forefront of teaching kids mathematical mindset lessons which focus on visualization, big ideas and connections between those ideas. 


The lessons have led to more engagement and excitement from students. 


“It shouldn’t be quiet in a classroom of mathematics where you just hear a teacher’s voice,” McCarty said. “You should hear noise throughout the room as kids are getting excited, finding ways to solve problems. We want to see the teacher in a facilitator role, working with those different groups, bringing those kids back together and taking what they found throughout that class period and funneling it down to that final objective.”


Each mathematical mindset big idea includes three tasks — visualize, play and investigate. 


“Some of what the teachers have said is they feel like this type of math instruction has opened things up for students who maybe struggle with traditional math,” said Kate Burrow, an instructional design coach for Blue Valley. 


Blue Valley teachers are seeing more student participation when learning math, in part because the lessons are creating a more flexible and open learning environment. 


“For the kids who are traditionally seen as really good in math, this challenges them because they can’t just use a rule or algorithm,” Burrow said. “They have to show or explain and justify their answers. The teachers have really shared they feel like it’s benefited kids a lot.”


Rules and algorithms will always be a component of math, but understanding the why and how behind the algorithms is vital to the students' success and leads to a deeper understanding of the concepts. 


Students are learning deep mathematical understanding, math fluency and how to be proficient in math. 


visual math problem


“Sometimes when we break math down to the lesson level, we miss some of the connections and big ideas,” Burrow said. “Kids really see math as all about rules and ‘My teacher told me to borrow from the ones, so I’m going to do that but I don’t really know why.’ This is really focused on helping kids see the big ideas and understand why.”


Blue Valley teachers are giving students more real-world math problems and how to explain their thinking. 


“I am seeing things I haven’t seen out of the kids in a long time,” said Holly Zahner, a 4th-grade teacher at Harmony Elementary. “There are lightbulbs and you can hear and see it. It’s really exciting. They love the lessons that allow them to explore and learn and it’s not so rigid. They need the visual but they also need practice and routine.”