Sara* was always out of her seat – something was always fascinating her on the other side of the classroom, someone always provoking her to give them a piece of her mind, some unused pencil always somehow needing to be sharpened. It was always some excuse, and her work always remained unfinished. I would work with her at her seat, but she was a master of the art of distraction. On a good day, I could get her to put her name on the page and complete the first problem before she demanded to use the restroom – her favorite escape plan.
At first glance, it might seem as though she is just an overactive nine year old being a trouble maker. Beneath the surface, however, is a little girl who is always out of her seat because she is too scared of what might happen if she were to sit down. She knows that she is having trouble understanding the material, and that is something she cannot bring herself to face.
On that day, I took a different approach. I brought her to a separate area of the room, out of view of curious classmates. She was avoiding word problems about division, so I retrieved some unit counters and placed them in front of her.
Mary has twenty cupcakes. There are ten students in Mary’s class. How many cupcakes does each student get? Pretend that these counters are delicious cupcakes. You’re Mary. What do you do?
Step by step, we worked through the first problem with a tangible strategy she could see, feel, and finally grasp. In the three months I had been in her classroom, I had never seen her work as hard as she did that afternoon. I saw her engage each problem with new found confidence: She had finally got it.
Suddenly, there was a commotion from the other side of the room. I feared this would distract Sara; however, to my surprise and delight, Sara picked up her head and said, “You can go deal with that, Miss Malia. I’ll be fine.” I really think you will be, Sara, I thought to myself, and I left her to finish her work.
Since that day, I’ve watched her using those counters, also known as manipulatives, to help her understand her math. The fact that Sara’s realizing more and more that she learns in a tactile manner and that she can do her math if she uses the right method reminds me why I’m serving with City Year and why I’m doing this work.
I’m not just teaching these kids facts and numbers and algorithms. I’m also teaching them how to learn and work through problems on their own, and in the process building up their confidence towards gaining skills and increasing intelligence.
*Names have been changed to protect the children with whom we work
Photo by Romel Antoine