Episode 140: Math Is As Important As Reading: An Interview with Isis Spann

Aug 2, 2021 | Podcast | 0 comments


On the podcast today we speak with Isis Spann on why building a strong home-school relationship is important to ensure all students can achieve at high levels! 

Isis is an early years educator dedicated to helping families get a “leg up” when it comes to helping their children with math. She shares her thoughts on the best tools for connecting with families; how we can elevate the importance of numeracy in the home; and, strategies to build mathematics into what we are already doing at home. 

Let’s GO!

You’ll Learn

  • What’s the best tool for connecting with families? 
  • Why building a strong home-school relationship is important to ensure all students can achieve at high levels.
  • Do some of the families of your students not care or simply not having the resources or the understanding of what to do to help?
  • How we can help give a “leg up” to families of our students.
  • Strategies to build mathematics into what we are already doing at home
  • How we can elevate the importance of numeracy in the home.
Start your school year off right by downloading the guide that you can save and print to share with colleagues during your next staff meeting, professional learning community meeting or just for your own reference!


Isis Spann: And, as educators, we can't be afraid to have parents inside of the classroom with us. So if we know that Mia is really struggling with fractions, record yourselves, teaching that fraction lesson. crosstalk

Kyle Pearce: On the podcast today, we speak with Isis Spann on why building a strong home-school relationship is so important to ensure all students can achieve at high levels in mathematics.

Jon Orr: Isis is an early years educator dedicated to helping families get a leg up when it comes to helping their children with math. She shares her thoughts on the best tools for connecting with families, how we can elevate the importance of numeracy in the home, and strategies to build mathematics into what we are already doing at home.

Kyle Pearce: Let's do it!
Welcome to the Making Math Moments That Matter Podcast. I'm Kyle Pearce.

Jon Orr: And I'm Jon Orr. We are from makemathmoments.com, and together,

Kyle Pearce: with you, the community of math moment makers worldwide, want to build and deliver problem-based math lessons that spark curiosity,

Jon Orr: fuel sense-making,

Kyle Pearce: and ignite those teacher moves. We, my friends, are so excited to introduce you to what we'll call a new math friend, Isis Spann, who is going to let us in on a few things. I don't want to call them secrets, because I think we all know we need a strong home-school relationship, but we take it a step further and we actually talk about not only the why, but also the how we can do this.

Jon Orr: Yeah. As a parent of three young children, I am super excited to share this interview with you so you can learn just as much as we have. So, hey, let's not wait for it. Let's go back to it. Let's begin our discussion with Isis.

Kyle Pearce: Here we go. Hey, Hey. Hey there, Isis. Thanks for joining us here on the Making Math Moments That Matter Podcast. We're really excited to welcome you on the show today to learn a little bit more about your journey and your role in mathematics education, but before we do, how are things going in your world these days? Like where, coming to us from, give us a little bit of insight as to your role in math education right now.

Isis Spann: Yeah. Thank you guys so much for having me on the show. It's spring time, obviously, and the pollen is attacking me. So this is not my normal interview voice. But I'm bringing you guys greetings from Moncks Corner, South Carolina. It's a small town. And I love math, and I wish a lot more educators loved it as much as I do, but we'll get into the details of why I love it so much, and why it's especially important for our students and children to have a really strong math foundation starting in kindergarten.

Jon Orr: Awesome. Awesome. Yeah. Well, I've been really looking forward to getting into that conversation, but before we do, we're wondering if you could kind of go back into the time machine for a little bit and give us a little bit of a snapshot of what your education journey looked like, and what led you into the role that you're currently.

Isis Spann: Right. So, I've always been a public school student, always at Title 1 schools, which means over 80% of the children in my school were on free or reduced lunch, lived in lower income communities. And I've always loved school. I've always loved my teachers. School was kind of like that safe place for me. And, as an educator, I wanted to be in the classroom so that I could be that for other students. I graduated from Jonson C. Smith University, which is a historically black college and university, with my bachelor's degree. I started teaching with six-month-old twins.

Kyle Pearce: Whoa. Wow.

Isis Spann: I went into the classroom when my daughters were six months old. I started teaching what we call bubble students. So those are students that will either pass or fail their intergrade assessment based on strategies and testing and different things pretty much that the teacher puts in place. And, again, I was a product of Title 1 schools, and I also always taught in Title 1 schools. So I always worked with students of families that were lower income, and a high percentage of African-American students, high percentage of Hispanic students. But it wasn't really until I saw my birth children struggling with mathematics that I wanted to make sure that that didn't happen for other families. And being an educator, I was kind of shocked and I was kind of embarrassed that my nine-year-old twins struggled, because I'm a teacher. Right?

Kyle Pearce: Yeah, for sure.

Isis Spann: So for them to struggle with math, and for me to have this background in education, I just thought, how much harder is it for families that don't have this background to help their children? So really 50% of it is seeing my own children's struggle, and 50% of it is being a kindergarten teacher and being up to my eyeballs with reading strategies and reading worksheets and reading intervention. And I'm just like, "Hello? My kids don't know how to count. Can we get some help with math?"

Kyle Pearce: Right.

Isis Spann: Yeah, so it's 50% of my own personal home experience, and then it was 50% of me as an educator, just seeing my students struggle and knowing that somebody has to do something.

Kyle Pearce: That story really paints a clear picture. Just thinking about your own experience coming through. And I know, from my wife and I. My wife's a teacher, I'm a teacher, and we have this discussion all the time. When, for example, the report card comes home, and if there's an area that our son or daughter aren't doing well in, immediately we sort of go, "Oh gosh! How did we not maybe see it or recognize it or know it?" I mean, we all know it's much more difficult to try and teach your own kids than teaching other people's kids, it seems anyway, or at least in our household. But I can relate to that pressure you feel.
But I want to go back, because you had mentioned, you came out of a Title 1 school, and you're teaching in Title 1 schools, and you had this message of wanting to give back. I'm wondering if we go back, and you had said you always respected your teachers. You felt like that was a safe place. And, of course, to every educators ears, that's just like music to their ears. Right? Thinking, yes, a student that felt safe when they came to school, maybe that might've been the best part of some student's day. Right? When you think about opening our doors and welcoming students into this community of learners. I'm wondering, can we go back and think about your math moment? Can you think of something specific that pops in your mind?
We asked this question of all of our guests, and I'm just wondering what resonates for you? Because as you mentioned, it wasn't really until maybe your own kids were struggling with mathematics that you went, like, "Oh my goodness, we need to do something here." But I'm wondering, how did you feel about mathematics before getting into teaching? And do you remember an experience that pops into your mind when you think about your own mathematical experience, if you mind sharing?

Isis Spann: Yeah. There are two math moments for me. So the first one is middle school. I remember being introduced to adding negative. When you add two negatives, it's a negative. When you add a negative and a positive, it's negative. And I just remember my teacher being at the board with the number line, and I'm pretty sure it wasn't the first time, but for me it was the first time where a math teacher actually said, like, "Good job." Like, you have this concept. And it seems like it may have been something that I was struggling with, but then I got the pat on the back once I actually got it together.
And then my second math moment was actually as college student. It was the first time where math wasn't just math, and math was fun. My college professor, she would play music. She would add our names to whatever she was teaching. She would dance. She would make these just like off-the-wall connections to numbers and story problems. She was super animated, and she was older. And I can remember her just jumping up and down, and just being very, very excited about math. I find myself doing it now. With my students, I'm super animated. And as a quote unquote "pandemic teacher", I have to be.

Kyle Pearce: Oh, yeah.

Jon Orr: Right.

Isis Spann: But I can just remember those moments where it wasn't just about the numbers. She brought it into plain view for us. It was just like, math is important because of this. You need to understand numbers because of that. And she broke it down to where, if there were three different learners in that college room, she knew how to break it down for each of us. And that's another thing that I do now. I'm really good at differentiating instruction because of Dr. Figures. That was her name. But I'm really good at, this is 90 times 54. And I have some students that are going to do it with the standard algorithm. I have some students I need to do an array model. I have some students that need to look at it as place value. And because she always broke it down like that for us in college, I'm able to do that now for my students.

Jon Orr: When you said that that teacher was one of your first teachers that was so energetic, it just, I totally relate to that. When I was in university, I had a professor that sounds just like the one that you had. And it was the first time that I had seen a professor or a teacher walk up and down the rows, and get in between kids, and like get right in your face and, you know, use their arms. Even to this day, I still remember him. And I remember always thinking at that time, if I was going to become a teacher. I don't think I knew at the time I was going to do that. But I would be like, "I'm going to be him!" And to this day, I'm a walker. I'm a pacer. When we're talking about ideas, it's like I'm in between the rows, just moving my arms around, and showing the enthusiasm for mathematics as a discipline that I don't think I had seen before. And so I totally relate to that.
And you shared a little bit about how she influenced you as an educator. I'm wondering if you have some more examples that you want to share with us, but I know that you already talked about how your daughters have influenced what you're doing now. Maybe you want to share with us, like, one thing that you said was that, if your daughters were struggling with math and you were an educator, what could you do to help families? So I'm wondering if you want to spawn right off how you were influenced and how that influences the work that you're doing today.

Isis Spann: Yeah, absolutely. So, for a lot of families, it's not knowing what to do. And especially in the African-American community, I can say that, a lot of times, it's viewed as families not caring. But I learned very, very early on that families just lack the resources, or families lack the step one, step two, step three. So for me, it was giving them that leg up. If you know what your child or loved one doesn't know, that's even more important as knowing what they do know, especially when we start to get to third, fourth, and fifth grade. If you know that your son or daughter or your loved one is struggling with their basic multiplication facts, then you know that multiplying two digit by two digit numbers is going to be a struggle for them, if nine times three is a challenge. So it's really families understanding that it's not new math. I get in debates all the time about, oh, this is new math.

Kyle Pearce: As we do.

Isis Spann: Yeah. You know, why you guys doing it this way? Why can't they just do the standard algorithm? Why do they have to understand place value? So it's really getting families to understand that math has changed. And I think being able to say, "Hey, I'm an educator, and my children's struggle with math." It doesn't make them feel as though they're doing something wrong, because I am an educator and it's a challenge for my children. So it's not like, oh, every teacher's kids are perfect, and they're straight A and B students, and my kid just doesn't know because I'm a single mom and we're low income. When it comes to mathematics, there's no respect or persons. There can be the poorest kid that can be a math whiz. And it could be the richest kid that's struggling with math.
I think a lot of times we make it seem as though only lower, lower income students are going to perform low in the area of mathematics. And I work with families just so I can let them know that this is not a socioeconomic problem. This is us really just maybe not understanding strategies and math manipulatives that we can use to actually help out children.

Kyle Pearce: Yeah. So well said. And you said a number of things there, first about how mathematics has changed. And it's kind of funny because I say it often times, and I think what we mean when we say that is actually mathematics has stayed exactly the same, but our goals for mathematics, right? Like what we want our students to be able to know, understand, and do have evolved. You had mentioned the standard algorithm earlier, and that's one possible way, and arguably a way that may be way down the road for a lot of students. There are so many other ways that we can help all students access the mathematics regardless of their socioeconomic status, regardless of their family history or background. These are all so important.
I really like, too, I want to make sure I mention it, because I think this will be one of the pieces in our What You'll Learn in This Episode section of our podcast episode is just this idea of misinterpreting a family that appears to, or someone that we might assume doesn't care, when, in reality, it may just be that they just feel like they don't know how to help. And sometimes I think it could even be an act. Right? Sometimes we're maybe embarrassed that we're not sure what to do, so maybe like, pretending we don't care. We see that same behavior in students sometimes. Right? Where in class, they're struggling, and rather than appearing to struggle, they would rather show that they didn't give a good effort, so that's why they're not doing well. And I think that's so important for us to think about.
So I want to go a little deeper here, because you had mentioned how much of the work you're doing is trying to help support families. I'm wondering, do you have an example for those who are listening at home, like there could be some educators thinking like, yeah. I wish I could support families of my students, because the reality is is that if they're not really sure what to do at home, how do they help build this team? Right. This parent, the home-school connection. Do you have any examples of something that you might support a student, like maybe this student's struggling with a certain concept, and what might be your approach of, how do you approach that? Do you have a package? Is it a phone call home to have a conversation? Is it a bit of both? How do you approach that scenario to try to build that bridge between the home and the school?

Isis Spann: Yeah. So that's one of my missions as well, is just to have this really strong home to school connection. And I would say, first of all most, make sure you have a YouTube channel. YouTube is the best tool for connecting with families. That's how I started. My business started as a YouTube channel, and I did five tips in five minutes. And I said, "Hey, if you want to help your child with understanding how to use a hundreds chart, or understanding how to use a number line, or how to use a temp ring, these are five tips on how to help your child at home." YouTube is a university, right?
People learn so many crafts and tricks and trades, and it's something that families can stream to the TV while they're making dinner, or pull up on their cell phone while they're driving somewhere. I feel like YouTube can go so many different directions. And, as educators, we can't be afraid to have parents inside of the classroom with us. So if we know that Mia is really struggling with fractions, record yourself teaching that fraction lesson, and text it to the parents, and say, "Hey, this is how I taught adding with uncommon denominators today. Try it at home." That's something that I do with my fifth graders now. If I'm teaching a concept and students are struggling to understand that concept, I'll pull out my phone and I record myself teaching it so that I can send it to families and say, "Hey, this is what we worked on today. Your child had a challenge with it. Play this video." And I upload it to YouTube. And it's there for them.
And, as educators, it's not that added pressure of feeling like, oh, I have to stop my day and call, or I have to stop my day and send an email. Just record it, send them the link, and you're done.

Kyle Pearce: Those are definitely some great tips. I think we're all a little bit more comfortable doing stuff like that now that we've had to do that for the last year. And I hear all the time, my kid's teacher's on Seesaw, or Google Classroom, or YouTube is also, like you said, a great example, because you're right. It's so flexible, so easy to kind of do a couple of clicks. And we all have video cameras in our pocket. Those are some great tips that I think that we can do, as teachers, to help kids close some gaps with the students we have.
I've heard you say before that there's no room for academic learning gaps in math. And if you think about some of the kids that come into our kindergarten classrooms. My wife is in the kindergarten classroom, and she knows some kids come in with a whole whack of already understanding of mathematics, and some are just missing so much. So I'm wondering if we can dig a little bit deeper on, say, pre-kindergarten and what, say, teachers of that area can do to help families before they even come. What specifically could we do to help gaps there?

Isis Spann: Yeah. So if you're a parent, you understand that, from birth to like four or five, you're wondering like, I really love this kid, but I don't know if I can live with them every day, because it's just, it's so much going on in that zero-to-five space. Literally, I have a two year old, and he probably is crying because grass is green. So it's important for us to teach those families how to build math into what they already do, because raising a toddler is already so hard that I don't want to give you another thing to do. So this is what I started doing on my TikTok page. Right? Because that's where the kids are.
So I literally said, "Hey, your child is going to eat a pack of fruit snacks today. Before they eat those fruits snacks, have them count how many are in the pack. Your child may eat Goldfish today. Before they eat those Goldfish, have them count how many are in the pack. You're going to cook dinner. Hey, you're a mom. You might cook four or five times a week, or it might be cereal for two nights, but you're going to feed your children. Have them count the number of letters on the cereal box. If you're cooking anything with pasta, give them a handful of pasta and have them count that. I don't want you, as a parent or a guardian, to feel like it's one more thing for you to do. I want you to look at all of the things that you already do, and I want to show you how math is already in that.
"They can do counting and cardinality with fruit snacks. They can do shapes. Just if you guys go for a walk, hey, what shapes do you see in our neighborhood? If you're driving down the street, what's the gas prices? What numbers do you see at the gas station? If you go to a grocery store or a supermarket, have them look on the receipt and find all the number twos, all the number fives. Build math into what you already do so that it's not one more extra thing."

Kyle Pearce: I love it. I love it. And I'm thinking of two things. First off, my favorite is on being that we just had a holiday weekend. It was my son's birthday, and he wants a special breakfast. So, we have the full spread for breakfast, and in our family, we're definitely not vegan. I know it'd probably be more, more healthy if we were. So we enjoy our bacon. And sadly, I mean, sadly for the kids, it's great for a math teacher, when we take out this package of bacon and we look at all the strips, it is never a multiple of four, the number of strips, which is great, because then I say like, "We're going to have to figure this out." And I don't let them cut the bacon until they try it, make an estimate of how many pieces.
And we want to be as precise as we can be. Right? So are we like, oh, there's going to be this extra strip. What fraction should we chop into? What should we partition this bacon into? So I'm hearing your approach. It's so key. And I'm going to drop a resource. And then I'm going to go back to you, Isis, and ask you if you have like some favorite resources to share with those who are listening, like, I know a guy, this guy, Jon Orr, who put together a website called Math Before Bed, which is great for building discussions in your daily routine. It's intended for doing it at bedtime, but in reality, it can be just like you were just describing, Isis, just throughout the day. And the part I really like about it is just the prompts and how the prompts are written to give more of like, I'm going to say it doesn't have to be like verbatim.
It's more of like the inspiration of what we could ask. The hardest part, I think, is coming up with a purposeful question to ask our kids so that they're doing some learning without it feeling super scripted, or like, "We're going to sit down and do math right now." So Math Before Bed, we'll throw that into the show notes. But I'm wondering, is there anything out there that you point families to that help them frame their prompts in how they might build this into their own routine?

Isis Spann: Yeah. So first and foremost, shameless plug, I'm pointing them to me.

Kyle Pearce: Awesome.

Isis Spann: And I say that because I have really good resources on YouTube. So I do have a YouTube channel, FUndamentals of Learning. But I also have my website, which is isisspann.com, and there is a section for free resources. Because, again, I'm very intentional about making sure that no resource is off limits. I don't want families to feel like they always have to pay, because I'm a mom of four. I love a free download. I'm probably the queen of going on Teachers Pay Teachers and only getting free downloads. I really want families to feel like they always have access. So I'm really big on directing them to either the YouTube channel or the free section of the website, just so they feel like they have something. And then, when they're ready to advance, then we start talking about consultations and customized plans and all of these different things, but I definitely want them to start with the YouTube channel.
And I say that because they can watch the video over and over and over again. They can play it for their children. They can play it for themselves. They can share it with a sibling or a grandparent that may be working with the child. I'd feel very, very bad if I do not say that Dr. Nicki Newton, which is like my math everything, she's just my math mentor. She has some really, really good resources for educators. Math Running Records, she has a lot of just like PDFs, and she has Padlet, and that information, I feel like educators can digest it and put it into bite-size pieces and then disperse it to their families.

Jon Orr: Awesome. Yeah, we talked to Dr. Nicki, I couldn't remember.

Kyle Pearce: Yeah. I'm going to look it up right now as we're talking. crosstalk

Jon Orr: We'll put it in the show notes. We had a great conversation with her and it's always such an inspiration to chat with,

Kyle Pearce: Number 62.

Jon Orr: Number 62.

Isis Spann: I think that's, yeah. That's the episode that I listened to and I was like, "Ooh!"

Jon Orr: Awesome. Awesome stuff.

Kyle Pearce: Yeah. Like there's so many resources she's providing, and you've just knocked us over the head with some great resources. We'll definitely put all of those in the show notes. So check out the show notes at the end of this episode to get Isis's web page, and get all over free resources, and check out all her YouTube channel. Isis, we're wondering at this time, we've talked about lots of great ideas here. We're wondering what would be a big takeaway that you'd want to leave, like a final thought that you would want to leave to the Math Moment Maker community, the folks that are listening to you right now.

Isis Spann: I would say that math is equally as important as reading. And I don't know what you guys' experience is, but it's always been 80% reading and 20% math. It's always been, "Oh, I have 50,000 resources for you for reading and, uh, 25 for math, and make it work." Right?

Jon Orr: No. Totally.

Isis Spann: So that's my takeaway. It's equally as important. And if we are going to really provide students and families with 21st century learning like that, that's including mathematics. I think a lot of times you talk about STEM and STEAM, but we don't realize that the M is mathematics. We get so caught up in the arts, and the technology piece, but there is nothing, absolutely nothing that you can do without math. And so many of the word problems, and so many of the different things that students are exposed to, of course, they have to have those reading skills, but for a two-step word problem, you have to know a lot of times how to add and how to multiply.
And another thing that I would say, too, is that it's not enough for children to have rote memorization of math. I tell my fifth graders all the time, "I don't care if you know that nine times seven is 63. If you can't show me that in a picture, if you can't show me that in an array, I don't care about the answers anymore." And I think, as math educators, we have to stop being satisfied with, "Oh, my student knows the answer." But what's the thinking the answer? Can you create your own math word problems? Can you create your own math number sentences?
So two takeaways, I know you guys asked me for one, but math is equally as important as reading, and as math educators, we cannot be satisfied with just the answer. We have to push our students to actually think about the numbers.

Kyle Pearce: I love it. I love it. So well said. And just to add on, research suggests that mathematics, students' early performance of mathematics is actually a strong indicator of success in mathematics and in reading and writing as well. And that is so important. So two great takeaways. Again, looking at just answers. That brings me all the way back to where you said math, the way we're thinking about math, and the way what we care about in mathematics has shifted. Right? It's beyond just regurgitation of steps and procedures. That just aligns so nicely with all of the messaging that we try to bring to the math education community through the podcast. So this dovetails so nicely.
You've already shared where folks can find you. I'm just going to mention to everyone that your last name "Spann" is with two n's. So if you want to go to the website, it's Isis Spann, S-P-A-N-N.com. We will link up your YouTube channel. We're also going to link up some Dr. Nicki Newton resources, episode 62 from the podcast where we were chatting with Dr. Nicki. She's so great and awesome. And actually, we'll say a quick little hope she's feeling better. I know that she was feeling ill for quite some time, so hopefully she's back on her feet again. And actually, I think we're going to slip in as well, maybe the episode where we brought in Dr. Clements, where he talks about learning trajectories as well, because I think it all dovetails with the message that you've shared and what Dr. Nicki shares, and hopefully folks at home are taking this all in and feeling pretty good about their takeaways here to build that home-school connection.
So we want to thank you so much for hanging out with us today, and we're going to wish you well, and I hope we'll have a chance to bump into you at a live face-to-face conference sometime soon. Jon, I feel like we've been saying that at the end of episodes for over a year now. crosstalk

Jon Orr: Yeah. We have been.

Kyle Pearce: I don't see any live face-to-face conferences happening yet,

Jon Orr: No.

Kyle Pearce: But hopefully that will happen sooner than later.

Isis Spann: Right.

Kyle Pearce: So thanks again, and we can't wait to touch base with you again soon.

Isis Spann: Thank you guys so much. I'll be back with my regular voice.

Jon Orr: Awesome, awesome. Thanks so much. Take care.

Isis Spann: Thank you.

Kyle Pearce: As always, my friends, Jon and I learn a ton from each and every episode that we record, but remember, in order to ensure we hang on to the new learning, we've got to do something so we can essentially communicate to our brains that we want to hang on to this new thinking, and actually make a plan for how we're going to do something about it and put it into practice. For Jon and I, that means writing up these show notes and actually reflecting on the episode so that we know what to chat about on the intro and doing some of that consolidation in the outro here that we're recording right now. So how are you going to make sure that the learning sticks in your mind?

Jon Orr: Yeah, and a great way for you to do that is chat about it with your partner or colleague or a member of the Math Moment Maker community by getting on over to our Facebook group, Math Moment Makers K-12, or tag us on the other social media, Twitter, Instagram, @makemathmoments in order to ensure you don't miss out on new episodes as they come out each Monday morning. Be sure to subscribe on your favorite podcast platform.

Kyle Pearce: Show notes and resources can be found, as well as complete transcripts to read from the web or to download and take with you. Be sure to head on over to makemathmoments.com/episode140. That is makemathmoments.com/episode140. Well until next time, Math Moment Makers, I'm Kyle Pearce.

Jon Orr: And I'm Jon Orr.

Kyle Pearce: High fives for us, and high five for you.

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