When I was a kid, I was not one to ask questions or talk in class. I remember my mom giving me wise advice. “When you are in class, if there’s something you don’t understand, ask the teacher.” But I was not a questioner. I was, however, a good listener. I was very comfortable listening to the teacher and getting bits and pieces of understanding, and leaving it at that. Bits and pieces.
This worked well in most areas of the curriculum for me. I quickly picked up on reading strategies and writing tools, because I enjoyed reading and writing so much.
And then there was math. “Bits and pieces” didn’t work well with math understanding. And I didn’t ask questions, so I struggled with math strategies. I was very studious, however, and even if I struggled, I would grasp enough knowledge on “how to get the right answer” that I could get by on my homework and tests fairly well. Then, my class would move on to another math topic and I’d forget the exercises I’d memorized and crammed into my brain until the topic was revisited in the next grade. Then, I’d try to learn it all over again.
So it’s no surprise that when I started teaching, math was my least favorite subject. And yes, I taught kindergarten. I know what some of you are thinking right now…What kind of math is even taught in kindergarten? One year in April, the year of the “papers,” as I remember it, we had sent home a paper a day of math work, which had primarily made up my math instruction for the day. The papers consisted of shapes, patterns, sorting, and counting activities. That April at Open House, a parent asked me, “When will ya’ll start doing math?”
Huh? I began to explain to him that we were doing math in the papers that we were sending home each day. I explained how manipulating shapes, creating patterns, sorting items, etc. all consisted of mathematical thinking. This seemed to satisfy the parent, but it didn’t satisfy me, the teacher. I got to thinking about the question…”When will ya’ll start doing math?”
Well, actually we weren’t “doing” much of anything except for writing and drawing numbers and shapes on a paper to take home. Because of my own gaps in mathematical understanding, I was teaching my students how to fill out a paper correctly instead of how to build a strong foundation in number sense and geometry. Sometimes, especially when I was trying to explain concepts like teen numbers and addition, I would get frustrated with myself for not finding the right words. I knew there was more I should be saying.
And then Mrs. Byrd came to visit. I had a sweet but very social and talkative class the first year I met Jana, and when she came bouncing into my room, I thought , “She’s gonna love us!” a bit sarcastically. Most visitors that year had left a few minutes before their time was up with a look of relief.
She came to talk about shapes.
“How much can she say about shapes?” I thought in my three-years-of-experience-superior way (by the way, Mrs. Byrd was a veteran teacher of many years before she was a math specialist).
Mrs. Byrd read a story about shapes and stopped frequently, pointing out shapes in the room and on the pages. Then she asked the kids to point out shapes in the room.
“Who can find something in here that is a square?” she asked.
They all pointed at the door. Then at the bricks on the wall. I started sweating. And instead of telling them, no, that the door was not a square, she asked more questions! I started fanning.
“What do you think makes the door a square?” she asked.
“It’s got four sides,” was the most lucid answer, among shouts of “You open it!” and “I smashed my fingers one time!”
I was biting my tongue to keep the answers I wanted my kids to say inside my mouth. She was smiling, nodding, and having a marvelous time.
“Well, let’s look back at the book. What does it say about a square?” she asked. And then she waited for them to speak.
It was messy. It wasn’t pretty. They eventually formed a good understanding of the properties of a square, and then they all walked over to the door. With only a few words from Mrs. Byrd (but lots of smiles) and a lot of words from the kids—I mean a lot—they were saying stuff that was insane, but then they were saying stuff of geniuses (two sides are a bit longer than the other two–it can’t be a square…it’s rectangular), every kid in my class realized that the door, the bricks on the wall, the windows, were not squares, but were, in fact rectangles.
When she was leaving, I felt like I had run a marathon. I waited for her look of pity or, even worse, reprimand. She turned to me and smiled and said, “Your kids have so much to say! That is just wonderful! They are able to form such good concepts. ”
I don’t even remember how I responded. I just knew that I needed her to come back. In forty minutes, Jana Byrd had pulled more thoughts from my students than I’d ever dreamed could come from a talk about a square.
And she’d done it by asking a few questions. Thinking back, I realized that most of the talking came from the children, not from the teacher. The kids immediately felt “risk-free” around Mrs. Byrd, and they felt comfortable saying their thinking aloud, even the crazy things. This led them to think more, I believe.
She’d also done it with the kindness of their best friend. We all fell in love with her immediately in my class and I looked forward to each and every visit, and the immeasurable wisdom that I would gain from her teaching.
Mrs. Byrd is one of several wonderful AMSTI (Alabama Math, Science, and Technology Initiative) specialists that collaborate with the schools in my area. The good news is, she came back! The great news is, she started me down a path of my own understanding about teaching and thinking that has made me feel like a successful teacher in many areas, not just in math.
There is so much for me to say about math curriculum in kindergarten. I’m going to divide it into parts and share in the next few days how a typical math day looks in my kindergarten classroom (and in my friends’ rooms—they rock!). I’m also going to share some of my most important routines and the changes I’ve seen in my students over the years as my own understanding and teaching has evolved. As always, I’d love to hear comments and ideas from you, too! Stay tuned!