As a teacher, seeing my students’ experience “light bulb” moments is one of my favorite things. However, hearing them articulate these “light bulb” moments, and how they came to understanding, makes my heart soar.
The other day, I was teaching a math lesson on ordering numbers to my third graders. In third grade, this is often a hard concept for many students as the curriculum digs deep into bridging hundreds and thousands. There’s something about having more digits that sometimes throws them off. This skill also requires students to demonstrate proficiency in ordering numbers from least to greatest or vice versa.
I could tell that one of my students, in particular, was having a difficult time grasping this concept. I tried all the tricks I had up my sleeve. I had students come up to the board to order a series of numbers and explain why and how they knew the order. I worked with the child one-on-one. I had the children work in groups to solve problems in the text book where they could see, and not just hear, the specific language used. I broke out a number line. I had the students use place value charts and chips. Nothing seemed to work.
That same day, in language arts, we were learning how to alphabetize words. We talked about real-life application of alphabetizing, and how to decide which word would come first if two words started with the same two letters. I had the students practice in groups and alone using their spelling words for the week. They discovered how to use the dictionary in the back of their spelling book. Every student grasped the concept of alphabetizing words.
The following day in math, I spent time reviewing the previous day’s lesson, when suddenly a hand shot up. It was my student who had had difficulty with the lesson the day before. A smile spread across this student’s’ face.
“Ordering numbers is kind of like alphabetizing words! You have to look at the first digit, then the second, and so on. If the digits are the same, you move on to the next one!”
A collective, “That’s so cool!” spread through the class.
I had this child come up to solve a problem. On the board, I had written, “Place the numbers in order beginning with the greatest.” I gave the child the opportunity to show how these two different content areas are related by giving numbers that started with the same first two digits but differed in the last two digits. My student did it. Not only did this student do it, but the student explained the process while working. This child connected mathematical literacy to a language arts skill of alphabetizing words.
This experience made me think through how to make stronger connections to varying subjects throughout the day while also teaching the literacy skills needed in each content area. While I had exposed the students to the mathematical text the previous day, it was through the practice of alphabetizing words, something more concrete that could more easily be manipulated, that the mathematical concept clicked for my student. The process used is similar in both content areas, but in math instead of letters there were numbers and the words “greatest” and “least” or “smallest.”