My principal happened to walk into my classroom the other day, when it was all humming along nicely: I was lying on the carpet, working with a small group of students on a multiplication/division problem. Several other students were scattered around the room, working alone or in pairs on the same problem or a variation thereof. Children were wandering by every now and again, helping themselves to whatever manipulatives they needed from the math bins, to help them think through and solve the problem. One student was curled up on the couch, reading a math dictionary. A Spec Ed/ESL teacher sat at a table nearby, working with a small group. One child was using a clock at the back table, along with some flash cards she had made to test herself ("time" was something she had been struggling with in recent weeks, and she was determined to master it).
Truly, it was the text book picture of Differentiation!
Sometimes I question myself about whether I am even making a difference for these students. Last night, though, I had an experience that suggests that I am making a difference...
I was "field testing" some math lessons with my own two kids at home; they happen to also be in Grade 3 this year. I showed them the warm-up questions, and we used pattern blocks to do it together, before I set them loose with the actual problem.
"This is fun, Mommy!", exclaimed one of my children, suggesting that he rarely participates in this sort of problem-based approach to learning. (The pages and pages and pages of math worksheets that come home in his backpack further support this inference.)
"We don't have those colour blocks, only for EQAO", noted his twin brother.
WOW! Seriously? The poor child didn't even know the name for pattern blocks.
I asked if they had access to math manipulatives in their classroom. In general, they did not seem to. Both boys said that the teacher sometimes let them use them for a certain question, or during "EQAO practice", but neither knew where the manipulatives were kept in the classroom, if there were any in the classroom.
Kind of scary, I thought. Imagine if one didn't know where the books were, for reading. How is it okay, in this day and age, to not expose children to and encourage their use of a WIDE variety math manipulatives?! In my opinion (and, I might add, the opinion of the MInistry of Ed, based on years of extensive research), children should be able to come and go and freely help themselves to the learning tools they need when working through a problem. To deny them access to, or to decide FOR them, which learning tools they will use is to deny them the opportunity to think, construct and grow in their understanding of a mathematical concept.
So, I pride myself that the students in my classroom know the names for and can use a variety of math manipulatives. They are still learning -- in some cases -- how to use them effectively, but they are not afraid of interacting with them, not as toys brought out on a special occasion, but as powerful thinking tools to aid in their understanding of mathematics.