Diary of a classroom volunteer - 1

When I arrived today, the kids were sitting cross-legged on the floor. One little one was out of the circle, so teacher Yang Li invited her to sit by her side as she hunkered on the rug. The child went behind Yang to sit, but Yang wasn't having that.

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When I arrived today, the kids were sitting cross-legged on the floor. One little one was out of the circle, so teacher Yang Li invited her to sit by her side as she hunkered on the rug. The child went behind Yang to sit, but Yang wasn't having that.

[Today's blog is by Cindy Lutenbacher, mom of an ICS 2007 graduate. Last year, in January, she started volunteering weekly in the first-grade class where Bill's brother Igey started at ICS. She kept a diary, and we'll be posting excerpts here occasionally. The following is from January 9, 2008.]"What? You think I'm clear, transparent, so you can see through me?" Yang teased her and gently pulled the girl to her side, as she rubbed her little back. "You know, my father gave me my name, Yang,' and it means, ah, clear reflection. But my body is not clear. It is O... do you remember that word? We learned it last month. O..."

"Opaque!" chimed in a little red-haired girl.

"Good! Opaque! What does that mean, first grade?"

They sallied forth on a one-minute excursion into "opaque" and "transparent," and I remembered what Yang Li had said at a meeting once: "We don't really need a building. Give me a tree and some children and we will learn."

The first thing the first grade class did after this serendipitous vocabulary moment was its daily ritual. Yang had two boxes and name cards for the children. She chose, randomly, a name from the "Not yet had a turn" box and put it in the "Had a turn box," and the choosee got to check attendance. On the big, dry-erase board, each child had a construction-paper cut-out of a hand that he/she had decorated with his/her name. Today was Camija's lucky day, so she counted the number of hands on the board and then counted the number of children in the room.

"Twenty hands. Nineteen students," said Camija. She recounted the children, still puzzling over who was missing.

"Good work, Camija!" exclaimed Yang, and then aloud to me, "We always double-check our work."

She started to count again, when all the kids began shouting and laughing, "You forgot to count yourself!!!" Camija grinned, rolled her eyes skyward, and joined in laughing. A sweet, magic moment, with no judgment or criticism.

"Ms. Cindy, would you choose the next one?" Yang handed me the boxes, and I fretted over doing it right.

"OK, now, if I say this name wrong, I want you to correct me, OK, crew?" I said. "Names are important and I want to do right by your name. Sharbal? Did I get that right?"

A thin, tall boy nodded, jumped up, and stood by the calendar on the wall. His task was to figure out what day it was and write it on the board. His face was a blank.

"Sharbal, I think the holiday break has made you forget what we do," said Yang. "Class, can we help Sharbal? What day is today?"

"Wednesday!"

And so it went, until Sharbal had written the day's date. On another part of the board, Yang had written, "How many days have we been in school? We have been in school _____ days." The task was to add one to the previous number, so the class helped Sharbal figure out that today was the 88th day of school. They double-checked their work using popsicle sticks in bundles of tens, plus single sticks. Yang used the ritual to do some quick, praxis-oriented math, by getting other kids standing and holding popsicle-stick bundles and singles. Which eight stands for Dasia's eight bundles? Which eight stands for Teny's eight sticks? Which is bigger, Teny's eight sticks or Dasia's eight bundles? And so on.

The daily routine is a lesson in math. And democracy. And fairness. And confidence building. And empowerment. The two leaders are chosen from the box of names of kids who haven't yet had a turn. The leaders ask questions of the rest of the class ("How many days have we been in school?") and the kids help out the leader if he or she gets confused.

The kids figure out how many bundles of 10 popsicle sticks plus single popsicle sticks will make up the correct number of days they've been in school. The leader asks what is represented by each digit in the number (10s vs 1s). Et cetera. The school's "Everyday Math" curriculum may be too far removed from the sensory manifestation that we call "real," but oh, Yang Li is not.

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