When I was working on my teaching credential, I spent a semester student teaching in a sixth grade class. The school I was in at the time required its teachers to use Explicit Direct Instruction (EDI) when teaching math. This method involved the teacher providing direct instruction on a topic, modeling the procedure for a problem (I do), working a few problems together with the class (we do), and then having the students work on sample problems independently (you do). There were no manipulatives, no hands-on experiences, and no time for students to build a conceptual understanding of the content.
This method of instruction was at odds with everything I was learning about best practices in my teacher education program and went against everything that I believed as an employee of AIMS about what works best with kids. So, when it came time for me to start planning and implementing my own lessons, I left EDI behind and used the engaging, conceptually developed, hands-on lessons that AIMS had to address the sixth grade math standards. The results were dramatic. One series of lessons in particular stands out in my memory because of the impact I saw it have on the students.
I was teaching volume of rectangular solids using materials from the Measurement of Rectangular Solids Essential Math book. In the activities I did, students used Hex-a-link cubes to fill boxes to build the understanding that volume is a measure of filling and that the volume of a rectangular solid can be found by counting the number of cubes that fill it. The students then looked at the number of cubes in one layer and the number of layers total to build the understanding for the formula length x width x height = volume. Animations and comics were also used to reinforce the concepts.
This mini unit involved several things that were outside the typical experience for these students. The most significant of these, I believe, is that we used manipulatives. Students actually used Hex-a-link cubes to fill boxes in order to find the volume of the boxes. Seeing the actual cubes and being able to count them gave meaning to volume measurement. And having the boxes and cubes was highly engaging for the students, so everyone wanted to participate in the task. There were no students simply sitting on the sidelines and letting the experience pass them by.
Another new experience that was very successful was the use of comics to review and reinforce content. I chose to present the comics as a reader’s theater with willing students coming to the front of the class to read the portions spoken by their assigned characters. During this time you could have heard a pin drop in the classroom. The students who were not up front were completely focused on their classmates and following what was going on. Those who were speaking gained confidence and respect as they stepped out of their comfort zones to do something new and different.
Although I have no quantitative evidence in the form of test scores, I believe that my using the engaging, hands-on methods that are embodied by AIMS touched these students in meaningful ways. There was one student in the class who was chronically absent. In the first semester alone he had been absent more than 40 days. Of the days I was there doing hands-on lessons in the second semester, he was gone only once.
The cards that the students gave me at the end of my time with them are another indication of the impact the lessons had. Virtually every card mentioned either the series of volume activities or Color Samples, a data activity that uses M&M’s® candies. The most precious card was from a student named Carlos. His note thanking me for “all you have done for us” was accompanied by this picture.
Those are the words I want to hear from every student: “I get it now!”
Michelle Pauls has worked with AIMS for over 15 years in various capacities, currently as a writer and editor. She comes from a family of educators and literally grew up with AIMS—her father was a member of the original AIMS writing team (and is still an AIMS writer). She has a passion for helping kids learn math and science in meaningful ways that connect to their lives and the real world. When she’s not at AIMS, she’s teaching third graders at Lincoln Elementary in Kingsburg, CA.