I was working with a group of young students in an Adirondack school library when a teenager walked through the room. He looked at me, paused and then said, with obvious pleasure, “I remember you. In first grade you taught me how to fold a piece of paper in half.”
Yes, of course that was me. I visit schools to help students make books. Spending focused time on getting students to understand why their paper folds are crooked, then demonstrating how to fold well is part of what I do.
Okay, so I was able to impart insights into the nature of paper to this young man so now he can go through his life being able to fold a piece of paper in half. Big deal? No, it’s not a big deal, unless, of course, you want to make a good fold and it feels out of your control.
It’s important to me to offer students a sense of empowerment through the materials that we work with. I’ve noticed that by about fifth grade, grade students have resigned themselves to the fact that their papers will never cooperate with their hands. When I demonstrate effective paper folding techniques to this age group, what follows is a palpable sense of relief. Experiencing this new sense of control in the way their hands interact with the paper, students often applaud.
Next month I will be working with a group of Pre-K students. After hearing from many students who remember the projects I did with them years ago, I have come to understand that the youngest students are the most impressionable. Along with anyone who follows the trends in education, I also know that many students turn away from math as soon as the numbers that they are working with seem beyond their control.
The question I put to myself, then, is here, at the beginning of the academic journey, what project can I create with these students that will bridge the space that between themselves and the seemingly abstract world of math? I want to implant an enduring visual in their minds eye, one that reaches into their hands and validates their own relationship with numbers. According to the Pre-K teacher, her goal is that all of her students be able to count to ten by the end of the year. Ten. How convenient.
On the feet of babies we teach our children to differentiate objects by identifying toes as separate little piggies (this one goes to market, this one come home). We move into counting, one, two, buckle my shoe. Finger counting comes next. How many fingers is this, we ask, holding up two fingers. The number line is where we first order numbers outside of ourselves. The hands make a natural number line. The place where fingers and the number line meet, this is where I will build my bridge.
I am imagining a piece of paper with an impression of the student’s hands. The hands can be traced, or they can be dipped in paint, or they can be placed on a copy machine and scanned. Above imprint of the hands there will be faint outline of numbers for the children to trace, one number per finger. As this age, children’s hands are small, so images and numbers can easily all fit on one sheet of standard copy paper. We will use a heavy paper to give the project a greater sense of importance.
Somewhere near the image of the hands and numbers, children will write their name in large letters, as large is the only size they know. I will ask the teacher to put this work on display out in the hallway, so that they can see it, over and over again, like a beacon announcing, “Hello world, this is my name, these are my fingers, here are my numbers.”
Will this project make a difference in how these students internalize the concept of numbers? There is no way of assessing the impact of the work, but, as an adult who has been invited into this early village of learning I will do what I can to help give these young people a sense of connection to and control over the numbers at their fingertips