August 01, 1991 1 min read

Last year, I was teaching a group of 7- and 8-year-olds to build two-digit numbers with base-10 blocks. I remember asking Anna to construct the number 96. This would normally be accomplished by placing nine 10-sticks to the left of six ones.

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Anna reached for a 100 block. I reached for my teacher mask.

Teacher: Are you sure you need a 100 block?

Student: I want to do it in a different way.

Fortunately, my mask was loosely fastened. “OK,’' I said tentatively.

Anna proceeded to place a 100 block in the middle, flanked by one 10 on the left and six ones on the right.

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She beamed. “See, it’s like a Roman numeral!’'

I was floored. This same child, earlier that day, had appeared to be totally confused by Roman numerals. Now, she not only demonstrated an understanding of the concept, but she was also able to apply her knowledge, rather creatively, to a different situation. Incidentally, upon completing her Romanesque construction, Anna announced that she could also build the number “the regular way’’ and did so, with no difficulty whatsoever.

My teacher’s mask, dangling just below the chin, slipped off and shattered. Without that mask, I find that I hear much better.

--Marty Morgenbesser
Reprinted with permission of The Whole Language Catalog (American School Publishers, 1991). The author is a primary teacher at San Miguel School in Santa Rosa, Calif.

A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 1991 edition of Teacher as TEACHING AND IMPROVISATION