Adding Math to Elementary Classrooms

Over the past twenty years I’ve been privileged to visit many wonderful elementary school classrooms. I’ve loved my experiences in all and, boy, are those kids cute! Let’s go now and visit a “typical” early-years classroom with a “typical” teacher. We’ll call her “Jen”…..

When math teaching began Jen apologized to me for “not being good at math” (would this be the time to direct my reader to the parent page in which all are admonished to STOP SAYING THAT?!?!) Curiously, though, what she did not appear to notice or apologize for was the time differential between literacy and mathematics. School began at 8:00 and the kids went to lunch at 11:45. During that time they had a 40 minute math lesson in which I thought the kids were going to explore constructing with simple shapes. What they ended up doing was about 20 minutes of drill with counting and simple adding ~ not at all a bad thing, don’t get me wrong. They loved the routine, they were having fun and I’m sure that these two things were definitely helping them internalize their counting skills. Then they got to go back to their tables where the pattern blocks were set out along with a worksheet to complete from the math curriculum. Sadly, rather than having time to really explore and share…I can make a house! I can make a star! I can make a tree! ….they were instructed to create artificially constructed shapes like making a trapezoid out of three triangles. Again, not a bad thing, but not enough.  During that same morning they spent almost three times that amount of time on literacy…reading stories aloud, reading in small groups, 4 different literacy centers, reading a birthday book, etc…And the thing is, this “typical” experience that I describe is just that: the typical elementary classroom in America. When I taught in a K-8 elementary school for about a dozen years, this would be the experience in almost all the classrooms. If we’re going to turn around our math performance as a nation, then I think we’re going to have to find ways to equalize that time differential!

So, if “Jen” asked me what she could do to make math (a) equal in time to literacy and (b) more challenging (or more aligned to the Common Core standards for Mathematical Practice) in her elementary classroom, I would suggest:

  • Weave in stories. You love stories and so do the kids. It’s your comfort zone and you should always work from your comfort zone. Here’s an example: on another page on the math fairy website, I talk about a great, fun read called Alexander Who Used to Be Rich Last Sunday by Judith Viorst. Read the book aloud. Have fun enjoying the story, commiserating with Alexander’s money woes and letting the kids share some of their own money stories. (I had a kid one year who piped up with, “My mom’s going to buy us an X-Box with her credit card. She has to use her credit card because we don’t have any money!”  Wisely, I chose to let this sharing drift off into the ether…) Then, either right away or the next day, read the story again but give each student a Ziploc baggie with the exact coins that Alexander experiences in the story. Let them act out the story as you read it together. If you’re working on Common Core standards like “CCSS.Math.Practice.MP3 Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others”, then you could have the kids work in pairs or threesomes. On day 3, read the story again and try writing some simple number sentences all together on a big poster. For days 4 and 5, I certainly wouldn’t hesitate to read the story aloud again, inviting kids to join in on certain parts, but you don’t have to. I would suggest venturing into some center activities now. You could have play money, a little store, writing about money, cutting out toys from the Sunday Target circular and making a little book of what I want to buy or something like that. Have fun! Get creative! Anything exploring money will be valuable, interesting and enriching! Which brings us to:
  • Centers! Centers are something that we all should really be using. As a middle school teacher I really struggle with keeping kids on task in center type activities. They’re just so, so social at this age and much less compliant for the sake of compliance. It’s hard. If you have a great strategy for keeping older kids focused and on-task in center type activities, send it to the math fairy! I’ll post it and for sure give you credit! Anyways, back to centers….If you have 4 centers, then I believe that (a) two of them should be exploratory in nature and two of them should be practice in nature and (b) 50% math, 50% literacy!!! So, here’s an example of what I think our friend Jen could do with her four centers. Her centers were:
    1. Writing about my favorite part of school in January
    2. Small group reading with the teacher
    3. An interactive computer reading program
    4. Handwriting and sight word work

What about this instead:

    1. Small group reading with the teacher
    2. Handwriting and sight word work
    3. An interactive math computer program like Math Whizz (check it out at )
    4. Fun with constructing complex shapes with pattern blocks.

Most elementary school teachers like Jen do a fantastic job setting up centers and an equally excellent job summarizing the centers, taking time to share the work kids have done. With Center #4, for example,  kids could create their complex shapes and designs on trays and then share them, either under a document camera or in person. Some great math conversations and communication can be envisioned here, “I used a whole bunch of these little green triangles to make a really big triangle! I made the yellow hexagon the middle of my flower and then I used the red pentagons and green triangles to make the petals.”

The possibilities for weaving stories into your math and math into your centers are really endless! I am very fortunate to live in an area with an outstanding public library system. I can walk up to the desk and ask for help finding books on any subject and I’ll get it! If you’ve never tried doing this at your public library, try it! If you don’t have that kind of access, then try internet searching. The math fairy is working diligently on adding books to the list, but if you find a good one, send it this way and we’ll share!

Have fun with math every day!