In my last blog post I wrote about how the sharing activity we are engaging second and third grade students with, although seemingly very simple, is actually very rigorous. In my observations I have been amused by how fascinated and excited the students are to be doing something where they are allowed to use glue and scissors. I know why they are so intrigued. In the wake of education shifting to standards-based instruction, the emphasis in the K-6 classroom has been language arts and mathematics. With the pressure on raising test scores in those content areas, teachers felt the need to reduce, or in some cases totally eliminate, the amount of time they taught art. Art is content area that is done in class only when there is extra time or when there is a holiday coming up. Therefore, students with glue, scissors, and construction paper in hand cannot be developing any understanding connected to academic content.
Reflecting back on my experience as a student in elementary school, I remember all the times my teacher let us loose with scissors, paper, and glue. Whether it was engaging in an art project where we were tracing and cutting out shapes, or letting us illustrate our stories by creating our own collages out of construction paper, these activities required a lot of coordination of skills involving measurement, estimation, and problem solving.
These skills lay the foundation for future work in mathematics and other content areas. As I think back to my experience teaching in the classroom, I always felt I needed to justify myself when I did an art lesson with my students, even though I understood the academic benefits of students engaging in art.
I admit I was guilty of pre-cutting shapes for my students for the sake of saving time. Students took the shapes and glued them together like I did. The research we have been studying and the work we have been doing with students around fractional reasoning validates the benefits of students engaging in activities where they experience measuring, estimating, and cutting shapes on their own. For example, give students several strips of construction paper and have them cut each strip in different amounts: one strip into two pieces, another three, the next four. Tell students that for each strip the pieces need to be the same size and they need to use the whole strip. After they cut the pieces you can then have them glue the pieces on a paper to make a picture. Do the same activity, but let them use a ruler to help them measure the pieces. Watch what they do. It is interesting (and academic)! The more experiences like these that students have, the better foundation they will have later for reasoning with fractions.