I love Tuesdays. On Tuesdays I get to work (or, better said, “play”) with one of my favorite students. “Tom” is 9 years old and autistic. He is also cheerful, enthusiastic, and polite … at least on Tuesdays. His mom says he is sometimes cranky on other days but he’s always happy when Tuesday arrives.
I only meet with Tom once a week, so I have to make each session count. I go by two rules when planning our sessions: 1) every activity must involve math, and 2) every activity must be fun. We do projects, play games, make shapes with Play-Doh, and lots of other activities.
I believe that if I can get a student to think of math as “fun,” then his mind will be much more open to learning new math concepts than if he labels it as “work.” This is especially true for students like Tom, who has a very short attention span. Every activity has to be entertaining enough to get his attention, and no activity will hold it for more than 10 or 15 minutes, so we change activities frequently during the session.
Each Tuesday I show up at Tom’s house with a large book bag that is filled to capacity. Here is a list of what’s inside: a whiteboard, markers, an eraser, a deck of playing cards, dice, Sponge Bob flashcards, a variety of stickers, a ruler, a Geoboard, a Fractions Tower, a Ziplock containing three wooden apples cut into different sections, scissors, tape, a cardboard clock, a folder full of games, and Play-Doh. And each week I bring along at least one new activity.
We always start the session at the microwave, where Tom reads the time on the digital clock and then sets the hands on the cardboard clock to the current time. To help him learn, I annotated each “hour number” (1 through 12) with a “minute number” (00 through 55). Today was the first day that he correctly set the time without any help from me. Hooray!
Then we head to the coffee table and dive into the book bag. Tom is crazy about art history, and he especially loves anything to do with da Vinci, van Gogh, or the Louvre Museum. So most weeks, at least one of the new activities involves one of these topics. This morning we focused on one of da Vinci’s inventions — Tom was thrilled to learn that the famous painter was also a talented inventor! Although da Vinci is not generally credited with inventing the parachute, his notes include a detailed description of a parachute made from linen and wood — the world’s first. Tom and I used cardstock to make a da Vinci parachute, which is shaped like a 4-sided pyramid. We talked about the 2-D shapes that make up the volume, we measured one side of the base in inches, and we computed the perimeter and area. I left it to Tom to add strings and his miniature Mario figure later.
Next we played dominoes using a set I had made out of cardstock. Half the pieces contain two “pies” shaded to represent different fractions, and the other half contain two fractions in numerical format. I use this activity to help Tom learn the concept of equivalent fractions. We ramp up the fun by keeping score on the whiteboard. We each get one point for matching a shape to a shape (e.g., a pie with 3 of 6 pieces shaded to a pie with 1 of 2 pieces shaded), or two points for matching a shape to a number. Today we tied, and Tom declared, “We’re both champions!” I just love his enthusiasm. And we both got stickers.
When we have time I usually pull out the fractions board game, one of several math mazes (e.g. “help the alien find his way back to the spaceship” by solving a bunch of multiplication problems), the subtraction checkers game, or the Sponge Bob flashcards. (Last week we played an M&Ms fractions game … yum!) But today we were short on time so we moved on to a division worksheet, complete with turkeys (we started the worksheet before Thanksgiving). Tom has trouble with division, so I always write the division problem on the whiteboard, first as “20 divided by 5 = ?” and then as “what number multiplied by 5 = 20?” Tom likes the “dots” method. While it is time consuming, it is the only method that works for some kids. Tom knows to draw groups of 5 dots until he has a total of 20. Then he counts the number of groups.
Then we had time for just one more activity. I had brought Tom an outdoor thermometer with which he will record the temperature every day for the next month. We discussed the two temperature scales and how to read the temperature. Then we reviewed the data sheet he will be using. Each day at about the same time he will record the temperature in degrees Fahrenheit, rounded to the nearest 10 degrees. He will also record the conditions (sunny or cloudy) and whether there is precipitation (rain or snow). At the end of the 30 days, we’ll make bar graphs and line graphs to represent his data. This might not sound like fun to some, but for Tom and most other children, anything new is interesting. He was excited about showing the thermometer to his younger siblings when they get home from school.
That’s why I love Tuesdays. Every week I have the opportunity to push my creative boundaries to come up with new and fun activities that will be of interest to Tom. And every week I get the unmatched pleasure of helping a child with learning challenges have fun while learning math.