Here they came. As I sat at the kidney table in a first-grade classroom I began to sweat a little. I had just called over a small group of students. They were coming, including Lincoln (pseudonym). This boy had been challenging me since I began working with him. He sought attention, but never for positive behavior. Blurting out random phrases, refusing to engage, misusing materials, walking away from the group, and kicking chairs were some of his attention-seeking behaviors. As they all came toward my table, I was nervous. What would he do today? Would he engage with my planned activity? Ultimately, I wanted to observe any behaviors which would give me some idea of his mathematical understanding.
The previous week, our activity involved building and adding using small blocks. Lincoln had built an amazing robot, but he then refused to engage in any math afterward. This time I had a new plan. “Lincoln,” I whispered as he sat down next to me. “Do you remember the robot you built last week? Would you like to do that again?”
“Yeah!” He replied.
“Okay.” I smiled. “If you do these four math problems for me, you can build whatever you want afterward.”
That’s all it took. From that moment on, he was engaged. He used blocks to form a tower of eight. Then I covered the tower with a cloth and asked, “How many blocks would there be if you added 4 more blocks?”
As I had hoped, he showed me a great deal about his mathematical understanding. He counted on from the first number, which is a major developmental marker. Also, he used his fingers to count, which told me he knew a finger pattern for 4 and understood how to use that pattern to monitor his counting of 4 more blocks. He struggled a bit when the tower started at 11. Adding 6 more blocks was also difficult for him. However, he kept trying. Furthermore, he was proud of his effort and success, and it showed on his smiling face.
As promised, when he finished the problems he got to build freely. Within thirty seconds he had perfectly recreated the robot from the week before. When we were all done, he gave me a big high-five and said, “I did good, didn’t I?”
“You sure did,” I replied.
The following week we did the same activity and Lincoln engaged just as quickly and successfully solved problems with which he had previously struggled.
There are a few things I have taken away from this experience. First is my admiration for classroom teachers who, unlike me with a few weekly visits, interact daily with students like Lincoln with love, patience, and passion. Next is my renewed belief that every child has a viable mathematical understanding that can be revealed and built upon. Finally is a firm faith that a passionate teacher, empowered with an understanding of how children come to learn math, can truly change children’s lives.