1st Grade Fish Stories: “Operations and Algebraic Thinking” Comes to Life

Our learning begins as children when we start to make sense of our world. When we count objects in our world and identify how many of something there are we are actually working on understanding number. Learning about addition is no different. It needs to start in a child’s world. So, in my 1st grade classroom, I decided to build an ocean bulletin board so we could have a shared experience and work on the students’ concept of addition. In the first week of school, we began telling fish stories. One of the first things I learned was the importance of giving them a sentence frame, so their energy would be spent on the math, not the storytelling. In the picture below, you can see the sentence frames at the top of the bulletin board.

We have told some stories as a class, and then in other instances, the students would work with a partner, one being the storyteller and the other being the storywriter. For example, the storyteller would use a pointer to show the writer the characters in their story. The storywriter would then fill in the number and color of the characters and solve the problem. In the first phase of the ocean board, I kept the groups of fish to less than six. I didn’t want the addition to be too difficult for my students, and because it was the beginning of the year, I didn’t know what their math sweet spot was yet (The sweet spot being the point at which they could potentially do something with a little bit of help or by trying again).

The second phase of the board was to regroup the fish so there would be larger sums. Students better understood what their partnership roles were, and so were able to put more energy into the math.

The ocean bulletin board allows any student access to math. They can count the visible fish, use their fingers to represent the fish, or use their concept of the number. It is great to watch the different ways students use their fingers to solve the problems. For example, noticing what method the students use to solve the problems allows me to begin to construct a 2nd order model of their math.

Based on the ocean board experience, I believe some of my students are ready to work on developing a foundation for place value and multiplication. Therefore, the next phase for my ocean board is to include jellyfish. This will provide an opportunity for the students to count multiples. They will count the legs of the jellyfish, with each jellyfish having four legs. For some students, “four” will be a collection of individual legs, but other students may see the legs in groups of four and begin to skip count. Check Brook Lewis’ blog post from May to learn more about skip counting. Adding the jellies will allow all my students to be working in their sweet spot. Some will continue to work with groups of fish and some will count jellies and their legs. As a teacher, it is my goal for the students to have mathematical experiences that fit them. One of my students who is ready for the jellies regularly gets in trouble for being off task. The reality is that a lot of the math he is experiencing is just too easy and doesn’t engage him. I will keep looking for ways to adapt to the students’ understandings in order to give all of my students access to math in their sweet spot.

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