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Finding Fun in Numbers: Hanover After-School Program Helps Relieve Math Anxiety

  • Varenya Modugula, 9, left, and Chris Batsis, 10, laugh as Naureen Yaqoob, a parent-volunteer, talks about their math work during the Crazy 8s math club at Bernice A. Ray School in Hanover, N.H., on April 10, 2018. The after school math program challenges kids to have fun with math. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Alba Gomez-Saucedo, 10, left, looks at directions as organizer Karen Huyck talks to the group during the Crazy 8s math club at Bernice A. Ray School in Hanover, N.H., on April 10, 2018. Huyck said over 30 fourth-graders signed up for the after school math program. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Alina Ahmad, 10, works on a puzzle during the Crazy 8s math club at Bernice A. Ray School in Hanover, N.H., on April 10, 2018. The math program is designed to help reduce math anxiety for K-5 students. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Ronan Przydzielski, 9, holds up a magnifying glass during the Crazy 8s math club at Bernice A. Ray School in Hanover, N.H., on April 10, 2018. The fourth-graders were looking around the classroom for hidden clues. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, April 16, 2018

Ray School fourth-grade teacher — and possible double agent — Becca Sexton addressed the group of young spies, before sending them out on assignment.

“Remember,” she said in a hushed tone, “the room may be bugged. So when you crack the code, keep it quiet.”

The code, a “pigpen” cipher that used geometric symbols to represent the placement of letters on a grid, was part of last week’s meeting of Crazy 8s, an eight-week after-school club at Bernice A. Ray School, in Hanover. A program of the New Jersey-based foundation Bedtime Math, Crazy 8s is meant to reduce students’ math anxiety through hands-on, stress-free activities that are built around a weekly theme, such as “Glow Sticks,” “Toilet Paper Olympics” — and most recently, “Spy Training.”

Karen Huyck, a parent who volunteered to bring the free program to Ray School, had dressed for the occasion, accessorizing her long trench coat with dark sunglasses, a wide-brimmed boonie hat and a flashlight. She decided to “pilot” the club — which offers pre-packaged syllabi and materials for two grade ranges, K-2 and 3-5 — with the Hanover school’s fourth-grade class, where her son is a student.

By the third week of the program, about two-thirds of the class had signed up.

“Oh! I get it now!” exclaimed Rachel Wilson, the lightbulb over her head almost palpable.

“Yes! We figured it out!” said Ryan Carroll. The pigpen code spelled out the phrase “LET’S GET THIS PARTY STARTED!”

Ryan didn’t need to be told twice: He jumped up and did a lap around the classroom in excitement, before sitting back down next to his friend, Ronan Przydzielski, to get to the next code. By this time, rumors of who might be a double agent were already spreading like a virus; unfortunately, this reporter was a prime suspect.

Once these allegations were put to rest, Ryan said he opted to sign up for the club at his mom’s encouragement. As for Ronan, “math is probably my favorite subject,” he said, though he likes his class’ current Native American unit even better.

Multiple studies have shown that math anxiety can negatively affect math achievement. Ray School students do, however, tend to perform well on the math section of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, the standardized test system used in New Hampshire: In the 2016-2017 school year, 84 percent of Ray School students scored proficient or above in math, with 50 percent of students scoring in the highest category. Statewide, 48 percent of students scored proficient or above, with only 20 percent scoring in the highest category.

Ryan and Ronan’s classmate, Chris Batsis, said that while he personally feels fine about math, he thinks he could stand to improve in some areas, such as long division. “I thought (Crazy 8s) would be fun and it is. … Spy Training is my favorite so far. Cracking the codes is pretty fun,” he said, though he did wonder: “How is it math?”

Though none of the students interviewed for this story said in so many words that they experience math anxiety — in fact, many said they enjoyed math — it can be a sore subject for both students and teachers, Huyck said.

She alluded to a 2010 research study, conducted at the University of Chicago and published in the journal Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, which found that teachers’ math anxiety can affect students’ achievement in math, a trend that is particularly strong with female teachers and students. The fact that the Crazy 8s program comes pre-made, supplies and all, can ease the pressure on Crazy 8s “coaches,” as they’re called, which in turn creates a more relaxed learning environment for the spies-in-training.

There are four “seasons” of Crazy 8s programs, so each age group could theoretically complete 32 weeks of activities, possibly compounding the promising effects of the club, Huyck said.

Parent volunteer Kerry Artman said that part of kids’ math-related stress might have to do with the right-or-wrongness of math problems, which she said can discourage some students from thinking about math as something that lends itself to creativity and “the freedom to experiment.”

“The fact-based stuff is good. The schools do a great job,” Artman said. But she’s noticed that her son has been “really inspired by the 3D application” of those facts in Crazy 8s.

“Math is a language, but it’s not taught as a language. It’s taught as a skill,” Artman added. “We enforce literacy, but then it’s acceptable to turn around and say, ‘Oh well, maybe math just isn’t for you.’ … I think when you shift that paradigm, that’s when you start to see this level of inquisitiveness.” 

Crazy 8s is meant to encourage that inquisitiveness and resolve some of that stress, claims that Johns Hopkins University psychologists put to the test in a research study that came out earlier this year.

The study, which was conducted for Bedtime Math, surveyed 755 students across the United States, both before and after the eight-week Crazy 8s program. The results indicated that “children exhibited a reduction in relative math anxiety ... over the course of enrollment in Crazy 8s,” though these results were only significant within the younger age group, K-2.

Across age groups, though, the “greatest reduction in relative math anxiety was observed in children who began the study with the highest relative math anxiety scores,” the study reported. 

“Uhhh,” said another parent volunteer, Naureen Yaqoob, when asked how her daughter felt about math.

“Here she likes it,” Yaqoob said. “There are games and stuff. And she gets to play with the other kids.”

Sexton, who is working toward a master’s degree through the Vermont Mathematics Initiative at the University of Vermont, said that for students who are dubious toward math, one important strategy is offering low-stakes, non-graded activities that ask students to think outside the box and, as Chris Batsis noticed, don’t necessarily feel like math exercises.

“I have some students who are speedy-fast (at math),” Sexton said. But then there are kids whose math-related skills emerge more fully in a recreational setting, and who “just absolutely blossom being able to play around” with mathematical concepts and patterns.

Just like with anything else that causes anxiety, “you want to eliminate that component of fear,” she said.

To learn more about the Crazy 8s club and how to start one, visit crazy8s.bedtimemath.org.

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at ejholley@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.