'Every teachable moment'

Before Nettleton Elementary students can enter their homeroom classrooms each morning, they’re greeted with a question.
Quick. What’s nine times seven?
Those students stroll into the school’s lobby, but as they reach its hallway, they encounter gifted teacher Tracy Smith and a stack of flash cards pressed between her hands.
Smith flips those cards as each of the roughly 220 students at the fourth- and fifth-grade school approach to reveal a multiplication problem that the student must solve.
“I have hall duty in the morning, and I see every kid,” Smith said. “I thought, ‘I’m standing here, why not use every teachable moment?’”
Each student gets a different problem, unless multiple students answer at the same time, in which case Smith allows all of those who provided the correct answer to pass.
There are no penalties for wrong answers. Smith may prompt a struggling student – What’s eight times two? Now add eight to that – or may even allow a classmate to help.
Once that student learns the correct answer, she instructs him or her to repeat it internally while walking to class. She might give that person the same question the next day.
Students who answer correctly are congratulated with a proclamation of “good job” or “thank you.”
“She wants us to be able to do it like that,” fifth-grader Sherman Ross said, snapping his fingers.
Smith begin quizzing entering students at the beginning of this school year after fifth-grade math teacher Martha Shipp spoke with her about the problems students seemed to be having learning multiplication.
“That is one of the hardest facts for children to learn,” Shipp said. “It is important because it is the backbone of math. It takes drill, drill, drill at school and at home.”
Principal Van Ross said the first day that Smith began quizzing them as they entered, the students were “like deer caught in headlights.”
Now, she said, “they look forward to the challenge.”
“There is no penalty if they miss one, so there is a risk-free environment to learn,” Ross said.
Fifth-grader Mia Sullivan said that learning the facts becomes easier as the year goes progresses.
Added fifth-grader Lexie Bowen: “It can be fun. She goes over it to show you how to do it.”
Shipp and Smith both said that they have noticed a difference in the couple of weeks since the ritual began.
“Three weeks into school, they are faster,” Smith said. “Some of them are excited. They know it is going to happen, and they are ready.”
As Smith learns the strengths of different students, she is better able to tailor questions to them. Fourth-graders generally aren’t given anything above the fives on the multiplication table, while anything below the 12s is fair game for fifth-graders.
But some children request harder questions.
“One group of guys, they never miss them,” Smith said.
Smith has even begun to quiz her gifted students as they enter her classroom. Each of them must answer three questions in a row.
Once, Smith was on her lunch break when a group of students heading from the bathroom spied her in the hallway. Quiz me, they said.
“They said they wanted the hardest ones,” she said.
Shipp said that as she tries to teach higher-level math, it is difficult to find time for students to drill their multiplication tables. Any time that students can spend learning that without losing instructional time is a benefit.
Shipp also has begun randomly quizzing students as they enter her room. Sometimes she shakes a jar of M&Ms near the end of class and then fires off multiplication problems. Students who answer correctly are given one of the chocolate candies.
“With multiplication facts, you want students to have that automaticity,” Smith said. “You don’t want them to have to think about it.”
Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or chris.kieffer@djournal.com.

Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal