I am a big fan of struggling. Struggling means there are challenges and challenges mean that you are still learning and growing. The first quarter of any given school year is often a lot of review to make sure that everyone is on the same page. There are new students who didn’t have the same curriculum as their peers the previous year. There are students who have not practiced skills and concepts over the summer and are a bit rusty. And there are some who, quite frankly, just didn’t quite get it the first time around. Because there is so much review, many students will express that things are “too easy” so I always try to find ways to make it challenging for them.
It seems to be easier to challenge students during the second quarter because we are starting to grapple with more complicated concepts. While I think this is true for all areas of the curriculum, I think it is most true for math. Fourth grade math is very, very, very different from math in kindergarten, first grade, second grade, and third grade. For the first four years of a student’s formal education, math is a lot of learning basic concepts that are fundamental to arithmetic and geometry. I am not saying it is easy, because when students are learning these concepts it is very difficult. But I think most students at least feel comfortable with the concepts and are fluent in addition, subtraction, and single-digit multiplication by the time they finish third grade.
Another difference is that the early grades focus a lot on the “what?” of content. What happened, when did it happen, where did it happen. In fourth grade, we add a new layer of complexity: “why?” Something I have told my students more than once is that I don’t care so much about the answer itself as I do about why they got the answer and why they think it is correct. (This doesn’t mean, like some people in the media have tried to indicate, that it is okay to get the wrong answer; it isn’t. I want my students to get the right answer, but I also want them to be able to articulate why the answer is right.)
Today was a perfect example of the type of struggles that fourth graders can be expected to have this year. As we are wrapping up our first arithmetic unit (on the principles of multiplication), we had an introductory lesson on factors and prime and composite numbers. These are somewhat abstract concepts and are very new to nearly every student in the room. So it was challenging. But I think the class was starting to grasp them by the end of the lesson. This certainly isn’t the only time that we will look at factoring and prime and composite numbers, so anyone who is still struggling can rest assured we will come back to it! We are going to do a practice test tomorrow and then, after a three-day weekend, have our unit test to see if we are ready to move on to our next unit, which is a mini-unit in geometry.
Even though we have had many struggles today and all week, it has still been a good start to the second quarter. The students are showing perseverance and a willingness to try even when they aren’t sure. And they help one another and work together to understand concepts. I feel like we have a strong sense of community that makes it easier to overcome challenges. All in all, I can’t complain!