The way math is taught today looks very different from how many of us learned a couple of decades ago. Walk into an AVS classroom, and you might see what looks like a Las Vegas casino, with kids playing card games to help them learn how to add and subtract. Another class might be designing a resort. The learning is supposed to be hands-on and rooted in real world applications.

Riana Hensel, teaches math & science in Kindergarten. Her main approach is for kids to explore a concept, whenever possible, on their own, before naming it. She doesn’t say, “This week we are learning addition, take this and add it to this.” The children do an activity to learn putting things together before assigning a symbol to it. Hensel thinks this provides the children with the strongest foundation. “If they are in charge of understanding [a concept] and knowing what it means, it means more to them.” For example, the children take piles of little plastic teddy bears and Unifix cubes. They look at them and notice things – how many there are, what happens when you group some teddies with some cubes. Then Hensel asks them what they noticed. It’s then that the vocabulary emerges. She tells them they are doing “addition” when they put two groups of plastic manipulatives together.

The Kindergarteners also have “math talks.” For example, each child might be given a piece of paper with the number “12” on it. They have about 10 minutes to write whatever they know or can imagine about that number. One child might write the numbers out consecutively, 1-12. Another might write the number “12,” twelve times! Another might draw 12 circles. When the time is up, they hear what their friends say about “12” on the rug. Math talks are about sharing everything they know about a math topic as a way to build a foundation for mathematical concepts.

Lauren Gadie is the 4th grade AVS math teacher. She says these “math talks” lay a foundation for what comes next. The splitting up and regrouping of numbers, reflected in how the kindergarteners play with plastic teddies and cubes, is actually applied in the 4th grade, but in more complex ways, like multiplying numbers or thinking about word problems.

In the 4th grade, Gadie’s goal is to help kids see how math is used in the real world. For example, “Something they are really into at the minute is designing their own vacation resort,” says Gadie. “We have some real entrepreneurs! They have numbers for cost – it costs money to put a bed and a table in a room.” The extension from that would be looking into area. Some kids use their feet to walk across the room to measure base (x) height to get the area of a room they are designing. The kids even figure out how much it would cost for one night’s stay versus a 2-week stay at their fictional resort.

Math instruction changes somewhat in the 5th and 6th grade, where students work in courses that target their specific skill level. Michael Wilt is the middle school math teacher and has a Master’s Degree in the subject. “My goal here is to get the students ready for high school,” he says. “This is when math gets really abstract. Math lives in the abstract.” Wilt wants students to be able “to analyze specific problems, look at their similarities and differences, and generalize problem solving methods from that.”

Teaching is still rooted in real-world applications as much as possible. For example, Wilt explored proportions with students recently, using global median incomes. The objective was to determine another country’s median income in U.S. dollars. For example, students compared the median income in Indian rupees to the median income in the U.S. “So the goal is to look at how currency systems are proportional to each other,” says Wilt.