Pushing Buttons

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A million dollars. The U.S. population—273 million and counting. Carl Sagan's billions and billions of stars. Big numbers abound in modern life, yet who really comprehends the quantities they signify? Teresa Morrison's young students at Lila McAndrew Elementary School in Ainsworth, Nebraska, have a better idea than most, thanks to an innovative project the teacher launched four years ago.

Teaching a unit on dinosaurs, Morrison realized that her students were stumped by the idea that the creatures roamed the earth 248 million years ago. They couldn't grasp the concept of 1 million, let alone 248 million. Morrison hit upon the idea of collecting buttons to help make the abstract more concrete.

She dispatched students to request spare buttons from their mothers and grandmothers, then from neighbors and friends. Next, she had them write to state newspapers asking for button donations. Inspired by the overwhelming response from Nebraskans, Morrison had her class contact button manufacturers as well as newspapers in small towns across America. Buttons arrived from all 50 states and from Americans living abroad in African countries, Australia, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Finland, and Puerto Rico. Students counted them and placed tacks on a map to mark the towns of button donors. They also wrote thank-you notes—a great way to practice spelling and grammar, as it turned out.

Morrison's students didn't collect a million buttons that first year, nor in the following two years. But her current class reached the milestone in December, when student Leslie Graves brought in the one-millionth button. At a celebration the school organized, students performed skits telling the stories behind the most intriguing buttons, and the 74 students who participated in the project received certificates. Morrison recognized Graves, the top five collectors of each year, and the child who brought in the most buttons overall—Garret Wolfe, who collected 44,945.

The buttons continue to arrive—the collection stood at 1,027,676 as Teacher Magazine went to press—so Morrison's students continue to add them to the "button bin," an iron and Plexiglass container constructed by the high school's industrial technology class that's four feet high, six feet long, and thirty inches wide. Two or three times a week, the children gather in groups of three to five and divvy up the tasks of counting and auditing the tally. "You can really see the ability of the children in the counting," she says. "Some children count from one to 10; some count by two's; some say, 'three, six, nine plus one more,' some grab two groups of five."

Although the project began as a math assignment, Morrison has spun off all sorts of lessons. She has used letters accompanying the button donations—such as the one describing how a factory in Canada produces wooden buttons, and the one from Massachusetts that discusses cranberries, maple syrup, and the whaling industry—as social studies lessons. Now and then, she asks students to imagine where an unidentified button might have come from-an army uniform, perhaps, or an actress' dress-and write a story about the button's journey. Occasionally, she holds contests to see who can build the highest tower of buttons and watches as students discover that thick, flat buttons provide more height and stability than thin, round ones. "It's just amazing how [the buttons] make them think," the teacher says.

There is no question the project has captured the imagination of Morrison's students, who eagerly debate which are the coolest buttons. Tessa Jacobsin likes one that is clear and looks like a shark's tooth. She's also fond of another that's shaped like a football. "There are probably other buttons that are more wonderful," she admits, "but they are on the bottom, and I can't see them."

Can the students visualize 1 million? Eight-year-old Tessa certainly can. She keenly suggests, "If you put the million buttons in a straight line on the road, you can probably get from Ainsworth to Omaha."

Vol. 11, Issue 8, Page 78

Published in Print: May 1, 2000, as Pushing Buttons
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