Challenging students to be confident problem solvers with a “math problem of the day.”

by Angelina Saenz

Grades K-2, Grades 3-5


I teach children to love math and have full ownership of being problem-solvers by doing a math Problem-of-the-Day–a numerical situation involving addition, subtraction, multiplication or division.

The process I use in my classroom:

–First I give a word problem about a topic they care about and use in their everyday lives. I also always try to incorporate my students’ names in the problem.

–Next, students have a variety of manipulatives at their table that they can use to solve the problem. They can solve the problem any way they want, alone or with a friend, including simply drawing a picture.

–Then after problem-solving we discuss the formal mathematical annotation.

Example problems:

–Dante has sixteen strawberries and he would like to put four strawberries in a box and put all of his strawberries in boxes. How many boxes would he need? This is a division problem–which is not part of kindergarten common core–but it’s a story the children relate to and feel like they have the capacity to think about how to answer.

–I have five cherries and I would like to share them with my friend;  we should each have the same amount of cherries. The students start out with “one for me, one for you” and then realize they can’t divide the amount equally. So we have a conversation about how to make it fair; they figure out we have to cut one in half. From there, we talk about how to make a mathematical notation for half. Now they are learning the concept of fractions.

I’m excited that my five year old students love math. During our play time they ask if they can work on math word problems and math games. I feel successful when my students are capable of problem-solving and have ownership and excitement about math.


What I did well (in sharing this practice with other teachers)?

What I did well in this clip was convey the power of presenting children with math story problems, and providing children with the resources and the coaching to find a solution to answer a math story question.  The clip showed my enthusiasm and conviction in providing students with a math problem of the day and could inspire colleagues to try this approach out to teaching math conceptually, before presenting students with abstract and decontextualized math algorithms.

What I would do more of, better, differently (in sharing this practice again)?

I would like more to time to explain the context of math problems of the day.  The theory or pedagogical considerations behind presenting a single math story per day, the routines and procedures for presenting the problem, providing students with materials, coaching student thinking (and not giving them the answer), helping students articulate their thinking, understanding math problem types and understanding student math development should all be part of the conversation.  It is a big leap for primary teachers to go from sequential part to whole instruction (perhaps textbook paced lessons) with multiple problems on a worksheet, to single problems given on a daily basis and the possibility this approach provides.

In what ways do I still want to learn and grow in using this practice in my classroom?

This year, I will spend time studying the research that has been done on children’s mathematical thinking development.  Children begin thinking conceptually and master concepts abstractly when they have achieved fluency with mental math. I intend to understand this better and the examples given.  I will also spend more time asking my students to present their mathematical thinking and solutions to their classmates.  Finally, I will begin the year with a wide range of problem types, instead of the addition and subtraction types that I focus on in the fall.

About Angelina Saenz

Angelina Sáenz, M.Ed. piloted the acclaimed Aldama Elementary Dual Language program in Northeast LA in 2008 and is the lead teacher of the program....

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