45: The Awakening

45: The Awakening

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers

The Awakening

When you’re teaching a hard concept and the students all have puzzled looks on their faces and then suddenly you can see that “aha” moment, that they got it, that’s just an incredible thing.

~Anant Agarwal

I was a new teacher filled with enthusiasm and energy. I had known, from the time I was ten years old, that I wanted to be a teacher, and now here I was with my own classroom… my own students. I was teaching second grade. It was a dream come true. It was my dream come true… except for the math part of the equation. Math is not my strongest subject, although I can get along most of the time as long as I’m not asked to solve one of those word problems. You know the ones I’m talking about. The ones where the train leaves the station on Tuesday at 9:00 a.m. going ninety miles an hour… Thank goodness I was teaching second grade; I could do that math. Easily. Yes, I could do the math, but could I teach the math?

My biggest math challenge was Annabelle. She had long brown hair and blue eyes — the most expressive eyes ever. All of her emotions and feelings — happy and sad, scared and delighted — were expressed through her eyes. And her smile. She was that one student whom every teacher wishes to have in her classroom. She was good and never caused any problems; she was helpful and always wanted to go that extra mile; she was smart, a fabulous reader who was reading way above grade level; but she struggled with math. Maybe that’s why I felt such a connection to her. I tried not to show it, but she was the teacher’s pet. My pet.

The math unit we were working on was subtraction. We had already covered single-digit subtraction, and everyone, including Annabelle, seemed to grasp the concept pretty well. But now we were at the point in the unit when we were moving on to a more complex subtraction concept: borrowing or regrouping. The taking away of something from the whole. I explained the concept of place values — the ones column, the tens column, and the hundreds column. I explained that you couldn’t take a bigger number away from a smaller number unless you borrowed or regrouped the number. I made charts to show that the number 13 is made up of one ten and three ones. If you want to take 5 away from 13, you have to regroup the one ten into ten ones and move it to the ones column. Then you can take five ones away from thirteen ones. Confusing at best!

Most of the students got the concept. Most… but not Annabelle. She had the blankest, most confused expression on her face. I tried every which way to explain the concept to her. No progress. I brought in ice cream sticks and rubber bands and had her count the sticks into groups of ten and rubber-band them. I showed her that the number 13 was really one group of ten sticks with a rubber band and three loose sticks. And how she couldn’t take five sticks away from three, but if she borrowed ten sticks from the tens column and added them to the three ones in the ones column, she could.

I used beans. I used little sparkly stones. I used pretzels. I used marbles and rings to demonstrate to her what the concept of borrowing was all about. Well, call it borrowing, call it regrouping, call it anything you want, she just couldn’t get the concept. I was frustrated. Annabelle was beyond frustrated. She was really trying, but she just couldn’t grasp it.

Until… one afternoon. She and I were working after school on regrouping. I tried once more to show her the sparkly stones and how the columns of ones and tens worked. Nothing. I tried again. Still nothing. I switched to the ice cream sticks and the rubber bands and tried… again. And then she got very quiet. She stopped squirming. She took a deep breath. She sat very still and looked up at me with her big blue eyes.

And in that instant I knew that she understood. She got it! A light went on. No words were needed. It showed in her eyes. It showed on her face. For the first time in a long time, she smiled. She understood. And I, as her teacher, had that amazing WOW moment! That moment when I knew that all of the time and the effort I had put into explaining a concept had just paid off. All of the gadgets and ice-cream sticks and rubber bands had finally gotten through. The concept was hers! She now explained it to me correctly. We clapped. We yelled and cheered. We hugged. We ate the pretzels!

But did she really understand? I needed to know that this was not a fluke. I challenged her using different numbers, and she got them all! Every one. She understood. It was like in My Fair Lady when Professor Henry Higgins is trying to teach Eliza Doolittle to speak with a proper English accent. After trying and trying, she finally got it. Annabelle finally got the math concept of borrowing that had eluded her for so long.

I had Annabelle in my classroom years ago, but I have never forgotten her. Nor will I ever forget her. She made my efforts as a teacher so very rewarding. Her “getting it” was the first ever WOW moment I had in my career. I have had others over the years, but that exact moment when the breakthrough occurred, when her eyes lit up, she smiled and she understood, will always be the one I remember most. The one I cherish. As a teacher, I made a difference to one little girl. As teachers, we have the privilege of guiding and enlightening students. And as teachers, we have the pleasure of being rewarded when those students “get it.” WOW!

~Barbara LoMonaco

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