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Making mathematicians

Learning lab cultivates early math skills

Sparta — People often think they are bad at math. 

Sparta’s early childhood program is on the leading edge of changing that math story so many tell themselves. And it all starts before kindergarten.

Educators recently visited Sparta’s Early Childhood Center to see the workings of a learning lab that integrates math into all aspects of early learning.

Prior to observing the class, educators discussed goals and values to consider when approaching math in a way that would engage more students and help make them mathematicians. The observation was followed by a reflection and discussion.

From left, teacher Abbey Veltkamp works with Morgan Taylor, Tomo Host and Conroy Burke

A Glimpse Into a Typical Day

Sparta GSRP lead teacher Abbey Veltkamp started with two group “connect” activities. 

“Let’s get our brains ready for work — count from one to five together,” she told her students. “Get your camera ready. How many cubes do you see? Did you see any groups together? What did you see? Show me with your fingers, how many did you see?”

“I saw one, two, three, four, five, six, seven,” said student Colton Norton.

“So you saw seven all together,” said Veltkamp. 

“I saw three, two and two,” said student Luna Javor.

Luna Javor draws at one of the learning stations

Next, Veltkamp built towers with blocks to create “tower town.” After students got a look at the towers, she covered them and took one out before uncovering the rest. 

“Which tower is missing? Morgan, which tower do you think is missing?” she asked

“Number four,” answered preschooler Morgan Taylor.

 “Why do you think number four is missing?” asked Veltkamp. “So you counted and you saw that number four was missing?”

When students broke into groups to rotate into different learning stations, Veltkamp focused on math intervention. One group played a fish game with a colorful picture of a fishbowl and small plastic fish.

“We are going to put seven fish in our fishbowl today,” she said. “Kids, count out seven fish. Let’s help Morgan check her fish. Put another fish in our fishbowl. How many fish do you have now? Conroy, how did you know there were eight  fish in the bowl now?”

“Because we put one more,” answered Conroy Burke.

“You may ‘eat’ one of the fish in your bowl,” Veltkamp continued. “If you ate one fish, how many do you have left? Add one more fish to your bowl (that makes nine). Put another one in (that makes 10). Eat one fish.” How did you know there were nine?”

“You take one away, that’s nine,” said Conroy.

After the focus groups, which take place once per week, students are free to visit learning stations. Veltkamp said learning stations are done every day, and students know the routine well, as it’s been in place since the beginning of the school year.

From left, Tomo Host and Harper VanNatter play in the exploration station

Assessing Lab Activities

“I feel like connect went fairly well since we were introducing a new concept, so you can hear both perceptions of subitizing,” said Veltkamp. “They don’t have vocabulary yet to explain, but the concepts were there in the focus groups.”

Veltkamp said they review shape vocabulary at the learning stations, and try to have at least one math tool in every area.

The curriculum, in its third year of implementation, focuses on math at a higher level than what is typically seen in preschool. 

“It’s shown that if you raise the expectations for preschoolers, they can meet those expectations,” said Veltkamp, stressing the importance of flexibility and willingness to try new things. “Your kids will rise to the occasion.

“So now the expectation is that they can orally count to 20. They should be able to count and produce at least up to 10, and we focus a lot on 2D shapes and 3D shapes and also being able to tell the attributes of the shapes. We talk about the square as a type of rectangle. We talk about the trapezoid, rhombuses and all kinds of different shapes that’s a lot more in-depth than just the four basic ones.”

Students are regularly asked to explain their thinking that leads to their answers, she said, and are encouraged to work together.

From left, teacher Abbey Veltkamp works with Romeo Jaimes-Sostanos and Luna Javor

Shifting the Focus

Kent ISD math consultant Kelli VanSetters said her own history of math was “tainted with speed and accuracy.” VanSetters led the observation with fellow math consultant Marcus Deja. 

“(We’re) redefining what math sounds and looks like, and helping more kids become mathematicians,” she said. “(This focus) on speed and accuracy leads to few people thinking they can do math.”

Steering away from speed and accuracy, the goal is to present math as broad, creative, argumentative, and collaborative.

VanSetters stressed that math can be learned in different ways toward the same ends. 

“It’s really creating that space for children to feel free to engage with these math experiences in the way that they sort of inherently feel connected to the math, and it’s not just about doing things one way to pass your 12s.”

Deja said the purpose of highlighting the Sparta learning lab was to transfer professional learning into practice and model the learning lab process so it can be replicated. He also noted that the Sparta lab successfully integrates the Great Start Readiness Program and general education students.

Also taking part in the in-person observation and reflection were Forest Hills math coaches Averi Vroegop and Shantel VanderGalien, GSRP program supervisor Julie Guenther, Kent ISD Early Math Professional Learning Project Coordinator Sohnia Malik, Calhoun ISD math consultant Kim Fox, GSRP program consultant at Michigan Department of Education Heather Lucas,  math consultant and early math professional learning director Rusty Anderson, and Ottawa ISD math consultant Robyn Decker.

Organizations represented virtually included Alpena-Montmorency-Alcona ESD, Genesee ISD, Kalamazoo RESA, St. Clair County RESA, and Wayne RESA.

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Jane Lally
Jane Lally
Jane Lally is a reporter covering Sparta. Recently retired after working in state government and other areas, she found her way back to the journalism field again. She graduated from Central Michigan University and spent most of her career in writing, editing, graphic design/print production and broadcast closed captioning. She has written for The Grand Rapids Press, The Morning Sun in Mount Pleasant/Alma, MacDonald Publications in Ithaca, Leader Publications in Niles and The Herald-Palladium in St. Joseph. She strongly believes in the importance of public schools as they bring communities together and make them stronger. She is happy to be able to tell the stories of Sparta schools.


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