Karen Holtz-Allen saw first-hand how kindergarteners, when tested on their knowledge of the alphabet, lapsed into singing the alphabet song to help them identify letters they didn’t know.

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
Jeffco's Peiffer Elementary teacher Karen Holtz-Allen uses a physical approach to math.

The Jeffco Public Schools elementary teacher wondered if she couldn’t harness that same strategy to help them learn their multiplication tables when they got a little older.

Turns out, she could.

Holtz-Allen, a special education teacher at Peiffer Elementary in Littleton, has created a program she calls Movin’ Through Multiplication that calls on students not just to sing but also to jump, box, skip and stretch their way through their times tables.

It has proven so successful that earlier this year, Holtz-Allen and Peiffer principal Robin Weikel co-wrote a grant to the Jefferson Foundation’s Lights On After School program to expand the strategy, which they’re calling Fitness Math.

The $4,600 grant allows the school to pay for five teachers to provide after-school math tutoring to 66 children, four days a week. The physical-activity-based exercises form the core of the program.

“It has just exploded,” Weikel said. “It started with Karen, then just the third grade. Now it’s in grades three through six. The kids are liking math and they’re loving doing this.”

“Now the kids are passing their multiplication tests faster than they can do addition,” said Holtz-Allen.

It’s all about skip counting

The basis of the program is “skip-counting,” which is counting by the same number over and over again. Children as young as 5 can start counting by 2s, 5s and 10s.

Counting by 3s and 4s – not to mention by 11s and 12s – is a good bit harder, but it’s something every student must learn to do, since there’s no way around memorizing times tables.

“Skip counting is more effective than rote memorization of facts alone,” Holtz-Allen said. “If the student is working solely from memorization of individual facts, there is no strategy to rely on if the answer is not known.”

For example, a student may not immediately remember that 6 x 7 = 42. But if they can remember to skip count 6 seven times – 6, 12, 18, 24, 30, 36, 42 – they’ll come up with the answer. And eventually, they won’t need to do the mental counting.

Peiffer Elementary students learn to count by 3s using a punch-boxing routine.

Holtz-Allen has the students perform different routines for each number:

They run in place while counting by 2s. They punch-box while counting by 3s. They do a Macarena-type dance while counting by 4s. They sing while counting by 6s and 7s. They sway back and forth like metronomes while counting by 8s. It’s hands in the air to count by 9s. They do push-ups while counting by 10s, and “mogul ski” to count by 11s. For 12s, they stretch and jump.

Multi-sensory movement

“Because this concept is multi-sensory, it taps into visual, auditory and tactile channels of learning,” Holtz-Allen said. “The kids enjoy moving their bodies as they acquire lifelong math skills.”

The fitness math concept has spread all over Peiffer. Teachers – including the physical education teacher – are doing it in all the third-grade through sixth-grade classes. And since an article about Holtz-Allen’s technique came out in The Messenger, a publication distributed to all the schools in Jefferson County, she’s been getting calls from around the district.

A book is in the works, and Holtz-Allen has filmed a video of some of her youngsters doing the program.

“The key is to find the glue to make things stick in kids’ heads,” said Holtz-Allen, a top ten candidate for Colorado Teacher of the Year in 2009. “And who wants to sit and do flash cards all day?”

About our First Person series:

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