Math in the Whole Language Classroom

Problem-Solving with Paper Chains
Lori Jackson

After a stressful day, we decided to do something completely nonstressful during math. Believe it our not, we had a great math lesson making paper chains. Using the colors of the Arizona flag, we asked children to work in teams to make an ABC pattern that was 36 inches long (I have meter sticks, so they needed to attend to inch or foot measurement since they are a bit longer than a yard). The monkey wrench was that the edges of each strip were to be trimmed with decorative scissors and punch decorative holes. Each team got one pair of scissors and one paper punch. I told them that getting along with each other and working as a team was just as important as doing their math jobs.

One team consisted of three (self-selected teams) very bright little boys but all struggle to work cooperatively and they spent MUCH time bickering and arguing and pleading with us to solve their conflicts. My aide was stapling something and I just walked over and began to 'wrench' the stapler away from her. She played right along and we began arguing and whining over whose turn it was to use the stapler. Then I cried, "Somebody go get Mrs. Burnette, I need Mrs. Burnette (our principal). The other kids started laughing and one boy in the group said, "Okay, okay, I get it." and it wasn't too long before they were back at work and getting along, solving their own problems!

Another team contained a recently returned child (who is sort of the vinegar in a jar of baking soda, if you get my drift) and her adoring best friend, a boy whose behaviors took a nosedive the minute she came back. Just the previous night I had a long phone conversation with a
worried grandma and grandpa regarding his behaivor changes at home as well as at school. We talked about the fact that the little boy might be in a position to really become the leader of this duo (which was a trio, but one member is refusing to go down that behavior path again).
We talked about how as a true firend, he might help us convince this little girl that behaving was a good idea. All day he had avoided sitting next to her during carpet time and he really behaved all day but at math time he begged me to work with his friend and promised me he would get her to work. I have a photo of the two of them, arm in arm, waving their finished pattern. The boy was thrilled because he did get his friend to work.

Neat stuff was happen elsewhere as well. Two of special kids have tremendous hand strength issues, so the paper punch was good fine motor exercise. One group of three quickly arrived on the solution of assigned jobs and kind of assembly line construction and they were so tickled at how fast they were. In the time that first team was still negotating, they finished one chain and started another length. Yet another team decided each person would try a job that was hard for them (!!). My dear, gifted lefty with awful visual-spacial understanding edged every strip (his scissor skills are rough). Another did all the measuring because "measuring is hard and I need to practice". About the time his chain hit 18 inches (he was measuring after every added link), he noticed that each link was making the chain two inches longer and skip counted by twos to tell his partners how many more strips he needed. This child also is challenged by patterning so with each addition he would begin reading the chain with color words, his partners chiming in to support but stopping silent so that he would have to supply the final color! The third kid in this room moved in just a couple of weeks ago and is in worksheet withdrawal. He was THRILLED to punch holes in those strips. He had never seen a paper punch and thought it was about the coolest thing.

When we got done, we closed by gathering together to figure out how long the chain on the tree was (we had connected chains and wrapped them around our crazy little tree). Each group had added 3 feet to the chain and there were nine groups. A buzz of activity before well more than half figured out that our chain was about 27 feet long. And as solution strategies were explained, they were attentive and interested in one another's explanations.

Lori Jackson has been teaching for nine years in Todd County, South Dakota. She is currently teaching as part of a 1-2 looping partnership. Her undergraduate work was complete at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and, having accumulated too many credits not to, she is currently pursuing her master's degree in reading at Sinte Gleske University in South Dakota. She is a CGI trainer/mentor teacher and uses the philosophy of Whole Language to guide her classroom practice.

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