Betsy Marshall: It’s What We Do
Children are assigned to my class because they are struggling with math. They come to my classroom at the age of eight, nine or ten, and already think of themselves as being “bad at math.” I help them open their minds to the possibility that they are mistaken. I show them they can use numbers to understand and talk about important things. As they realize how numbers help them to observe, understand and talk about the world, they are always eager to learn more. Knowing how to use numbers gives them a sense of control and often leads to a heightened sense of wonder about the world.
Young children begin to observe, create and develop their own sense of time and space through their understanding of numbers. The process of learning to count or adding and subtracting numbers is not tedious. It enables them to talk with authority about important ideas. For example, engaging a young child in the study of weather is a great way to explore the meaning of numbers and provides a meaningful reason for a child to want to learn to add, subtract and compare numbers. The simple act of charting the temperature every day on a bar graph (using a 10-interval scale) helps children better understand the relationship of numbers 1 to 100. They discover how numbers can be used to quantify ideas like hot and cold. Temperature graphs made by third-grade students are posted along my classroom wall for the entire school year, which allows us to use the raw data in many ways, perhaps to talk about averages with my fourth-grade students or histograms with my fifth-graders.
Looking at trends in the weather ties in nicely to talking about cycles of time. Discussing the number of days in a week, days in a month, months in a year, etc., are also of great interest. Contemplating the Winter Solstice, the Summer Equinox and ratios comparing the length of daylight in the summer to the shorter winter days of December lead to discussions regarding patterns of light and dark, which in turn lead to broader mathematical ideas about a bigger universe. The simple act of having my third-graders make the classroom calendar every month leads to repeated opportunities for problem solving that require them to use the four basic operations that they have practiced as discreet skills. Children are motivated and excited to try their hand at solving mathematical problems when they have an expectation for success and when personal success has meaning in their lives.
Math doesn’t have to be confusing and hard, and it certainly doesn’t have to be tedious or boring. Even the “boring” chores in math like learning multiplication facts can be made fun and exciting. When numbers have meaning for children and children are given sufficient support and encouragement most children become enamored and become math enthusiasts.
My job is to get students excited about understanding the language of numbers, but what I do is more than that job. What I do comes from a passion and a desire to empower my students. I help them see how every aspect of their lives can be tied to numbers in some way. The more they understand and use numbers, and lose the label of "bad at math,” the more they know about how the world works.
(Betsy Marshall teaches in the Arlington Central School District and is a member of the Arlington Teachers Assocation.)