This post started out very differently. I planned to write about how three of my kindergarten mathematicians solved the problem, “Three kids have a mug of hot chocolate. They are going to put ten marshmallows in each mug. How many marshmallows will they need altogether for their three mugs of hot chocolate?” Someday I might write that post. (The pictures of the kids in action on this problem are still here) But here’s a bigger idea I’ve been thinking about.
Children are powerful mathematicians. This is something I’ve written about often, here on my blog and in my book. It may seem like a simple statement, but I believe it speaks to the kind of advocacy we, as teachers, need to commit to for our learners. All children problem solve, our brains are designed for it much in same way that our brains are designed for language learning. We expect our babies to learn to talk, our children to learn to read and write, and yet, in many ways the expectations for mathematical problem solving are not the same.
Recently someone asked me if I missed my former position as a math coach, and why, when I chose to go back into the classroom, I chose kindergarten. The answer to that question is, of course, not simple. I chose to go back to a classroom position because I missed the community aspect of having my own classroom and being with the same group of children all day. I missed teaching reading and writing (I’m more than just math :-)) The mathematical answer, however, was that kindergarten is a place where the informal problem-solving strategies that children develop (as early as when they are babies) can be developed and guided in amazing ways. Kindergarten is a rich environment for instilling the idea, “You are a mathematician.” “This is what mathematicians do.” “How were you a mathematician when you…?” “What do you wonder about? And how can we figure that out?” Children can become agents in their own learning, feel a sense of ownership from the beginning of their educational career.
And yet, kindergarten is often a place where math is watered down to rote counting, number writing practice, and inappropriate (in my ever humble opinion) memorization of facts. There are textbooks and programs making lots of money off this idea that kindergartners are empty slates who must first learn to do x, y, z before they can be problem solvers. Many teachers are asked (by schools, by districts, by our federal government) to commit to these kinds of practices. I know sometimes, in some places, it feels like there is a constant struggle between teaching responsively in the way you know is best and teaching what has been dictated.
And so, here is my truest answer about why I went back to the classroom. I say this with the caveat, that this was only the right choice for me. There are amazing math coaches (I get to work with several!), specialists, and administrators that advocate amazingly for students and teachers. But the classroom is where I belong. For now.
The classroom is really the grassroots of education. Despite the fact that we teach in a time in which many teachers feel powerless to the greater forces at play in education policy, I maintain that the classroom is a powerful place for change. It’s a place to be subversive. To teach what children need. To be responsive to every child. To problem solve with your kids. To push limits. To push back when you are asked to teach/test something inappropriate.
When people ask me what I do for a living and I reply that I’m a kindergarten teacher, I often hear, “Oh how cute, you get to sing and play with kids all day.”
“Yes, I do.” And while I’m singing and playing I also help them to think about the world, to question gender roles and power, to inquire about mathematics and determine pathways to solving problems, to understand the power that comes with being able to read, to negotiate, to argue fairly.”
Some of this is in the written curriculum, lots of it is not. I hope more and more teachers consider themselves powerful advocates for their students–that we continue to be subversive in our teaching (even in small ways) in times of ever-increasing standardized education.
So, teach on, amazing educators out there. Keep up the hard, but always worthwhile work.