Nurturing a Math Mindset

After a summer spent out of school, it sometimes takes time to get back into the swing of classroom learning, especially in the younger grades. To help ease this transition, teachers throughout Chapin employ a variety of strategies to help their students settle in and prepare for a productive year ahead.

In Lower School, for example, a new math initiative – shared with faculty in the weeks before formal mathematical instruction began – gave teachers a technique through which to evaluate their students’ competencies as they were guided through a series of low-stakes challenges.

“This year we started the year a little differently in math,” said Leia Yongvanich, Lower School Director of Teaching and Learning. “Each grade [except Kindergarten] completed two weeks of inspirational math activities called ‘The First Two Weeks.’”

As Ms. Yongvanich explained, the September initiative comprised “six fun, engaging, collaborative tasks that students did to get excited for a year of learning and also to build positive math identities.”

During this writer’s recent visits with Classes 2 and 3, the students were eager to explore these lively mini-lessons. Instead of remaining in their homerooms for the entirety of ‘The First Two Weeks,’ the girls rotated in groups to the other grade-specific classrooms, each of which had been designated as a “home base” for a particular task and were led by different teachers.

“Who feels like they are a mathematician today?” Associate Teacher Kelsey Konopka asked the Class 3 students at the beginning of the “Pixelated Art” activity in Room 43. A number of hands shot up.

Ms. Konopka began the lesson by showing a short animated video, which underscored the message that brains are muscles that need to be exercised. Next, she presented the students with a series of quick images, projected on the screen for just 2-3 seconds. The students were asked to determine the number of pink, yellow and green squares they saw, and to articulate their reasoning with a number sentence.

“I saw 7 squares: 3 + 3 + 1,” said one student. Another offered: “9 – 2 = 7.”

This warm-up exercise helped prepare the girls for the hands-on component of the project, which, in this case, asked them to figure out a strategy for counting the number of squares (or pixels) in a multi-hued image. Collaborating in small groups, these students chose either a Chapin girl or a minion, both of which had been printed out on sheets of paper. Once they determined the total number of pixels and confirmed their findings with one of the teachers (in this case Ms. Konopka, Ms. Yongvanich or Head Teacher Rachel Prottas), the students began to re-create their images using colorful plastic tiles.

When time was up (whether or not the task was completed), the Class 3 students gathered again on the carpet to engage in “discourse,” an important element of math workshop that allows students to share their experiences with one another. Then they put away their work, lined up quietly and moved on to the next stop in the rotation. In addition to counting pixels, they had the chance to calculate the weights of an array of animals and organize members of marching bands in equal rows, among other activities.

Downstairs in Room 33, Class 2 students were busy counting cans in another “First Two Weeks” task. “What’s the pattern here?” Head Teacher Alexandra Buser asked, pointing to the classroom white board, which displayed an image of 10 cans arranged in a triangular shape. The students, listening attentively from their spots on the carpet, were quick to share their ideas. One pointed out that the quantity of cans decreased from bottom to top. Several of her classmates nodded in agreement.

Afterwards, the students tried their hands at building their own mathematical pyramids, pulling handfuls of interconnected cubes from pastel-hued baskets and stacking them on the tables. With Ms. Buser and Head Teacher Soo Kim’s guidance, they also completed an accompanying worksheet with this query: Jon is stacking the cans in a triangle. If he has enough room for 9 cans in the bottom row of his display, how many cans will he need?

“I’m tracing the cubes to get the right number,” one student commented.

“I’m going to scribble this out. I made a mistake,” another declared.

Before they knew it, the can-counting exercise wrapped up, and these Class 2 students scurried down the hall, excited for the next challenge that awaited them on the math rotation. With vital skills reviewed and refreshed – including perseverance, communication and reasoning – Lower School students are ready to embark on an exhilarating year of mathematical inquiry.

Browse photos from recent math classes below: