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Foundations and (Corner) Stones

By Lauren Goldberg

Susan Keegan's Kindergartners know a lot about the number five. They also know a lot about rocks. While the connection between fives and rocks may not be immediately evident to a casual observer, the overlap between basic number sense and observational science is at the heart of Foote's curriculum in the early grades. 

When they returned from winter break, the children embarked on a deep study of "five-ness." Susan explains, "They're decomposing five, learning all the combinations that equal five." Math specialist Heather Zetterberg provided an introductory lesson, along with materials and guidelines for a series of follow-up activities, which the children have embraced eagerly.

On a recent visit to the classroom, I had the chance to join the children for a rollicking round of "Toss 5." The game consists of round chips that have a red and a yellow side. Each player shakes a cup containing five colored chips. After tossing them onto the table, the player counts the number of chips that have landed red-side-up and yellow-side-up. These results are then translated into a number sentence. Two red faces and three yellow faces means an equation that looks like this: 2+3=5. Four red faces and one yellow face is recorded as 4+1=5. 

As the students tally more and more results, patterns begin to emerge. There are more 2+3 and 3+2 than any other combination. Overall, there are six possible combinations. When the children create bar charts to record the number of times each combination appears, these frequencies become even more apparent.

Susan distributed a sheet for students to record their predictions of the combinations from a series of tosses. Every few minutes, someone would give a small cheer when the toss matched the prediction. "Who got a 'yes' to a prediction?" she asked after the children had tossed their chips multiple times. Many hands went up. "I didn't, but I'm fine," one child assured the teacher. "On my first try, I got the opposite!" someone else reported. "When you did the graphing, where did your graph go the highest?" Susan asked. Several children called out about the 3+2 and 2+3 columns. Over time, these early experiences with data will evolve into increasingly complex analytical skills.

These activities are designed to encourage automatic recognition and deep understanding of quantity and value. The pedagogical term for this broad area of math is "number sense." It is a foundational skill in early numeracy and we teach it deliberately, sequentially and thoroughly. Basic number sense enables computational skills and comprehension of the relationships between numbers.

The organizational exercises in this unit also activate other types of analytical thinking, which are essential in every area of study. Here is where the rocks come into play.

Around the room, Susan's students have arranged displays of stones that they have collected outside of school. "This is totally coming from the children's interest. They've been really excited about rocks, so we decided to incorporate it into the class," Susan told me. Each child's collection is carefully laid out on a sheet of black construction paper. The rocks are grouped according to a range of attributes: blue, sparkly, rough, shiny, etc.

"Sorting and classifying are important skills at this age, so we've been learning about the ways that scientists study rocks," Susan says. The children can explain each of these four major features: color, texture, hardness, and luster (Luster, I learn from an eager young geologist, is "how shiny something is"). Next week, these kindergarteners will document their scientific and observational knowledge by using an iPad app that allows them to record images and audio descriptions of selected stones from their collections.  

Whether our youngest students are engaged in a carefully sequenced math lesson or a child-directed exploration, Foote School teachers are always alert to the important skills and concepts that can be introduced, practiced and applied within—and across—curricular areas. Kindergarten truly is the bedrock of our program. 

Lauren Goldberg is Foote's curriculum coordinator.

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Since 1916, The Foote School has provided child-centered education that nurtures creativity, excellence and joy in learning.

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