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Which is more: eight or nine?

“Ok,” I began to ask, “which is more: eight or nine?”

“Nine,” George lulled, bored.

“Good, and what kind of problem is this?”

“Uhm. . .Subtraction?”

“So if eight is on top what do we need to do?”

“Add?”

Third-grade is not where I wanted to be. It could be said third grade just wasn't my “thing.” I don't think third-grade was even my “thing” when I was in third-grade. I was on assignment for my Teaching Professions Academy class. One-hundred-twenty observation hours— although they could be spent helping or observing; I prefer helping even when I'm assigned to work with an age group I have no intention of teaching. Despite high praise from my instructor concerning my “natural” ability I didn't always feel it. Perhaps it wasn't my fault, entirely, elementary students seemed curiously impervious to the joys of any works of literature besides “The Diaries of a Wimpy Kid,” “The Bailey School Kids” or “Harry Potter,” especially when they arrived at the math and science class I had been assigned to. What I loved, for them, was a curious but optimistic enigma to be experienced in the future much like Health class, or driving. I had few comforts: I had a fairly solid grip on early 3rd grade math, I knew what it was like to struggle in mathematics and I had some conceptual knowledge of learning styles.

I tried everything I believed I knew how to do. Finger counting, “touch math,” the concepts entered George's ear but what happened to my words after that point I can only fantasize about. Those words were never heard from again. Lesson after lesson, deployed, reiterated, all reported M.I.A.

“How do you do math best?” I finally asked, resisting the urge to cringe as I considered the possibility that he may respond “Oh, people just usually give me the answers after a while.”

“Number lines.”

A linear, visual, thinker, I could work with this! After a brief exchange asking with his teacher asking if she, or his I.E.P, allowed tools such as number lines, we set off. He had completed the worksheet correctly within ten minutes. In subsequent days and weeks, I shared with his teacher how George seemed to learn best so she could track his progress and adapt assignments according to his way of thinking. His dependence on the number-line was slowly reduced. George soon proved able to understand math well enough to do many subtraction problems using only pen and paper. Progress was made now that the mystery of how he learned best was partially exhumed.

Much like "Jekyll and Hyde" would be inscrutable to the third-graders in that class, I discovered that the minds of third-graders were puzzles perplexing me. While I still have no intentions of teaching elementary school, I have taken my experience working there as a lesson in how to always instruct with the student's learning in mind—regardless of age. I was uncomfortable. That is why I learned.



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