The Math Tightrope in the Lower Grades

In teaching mathematics, perhaps like no other subject, we find ourselves walking a tightrope. If we step a bit to one side, a sizable portion of the class becomes perplexed and overwhelmed. If we correct ourselves to the other side, the quicker students get bored and the class as a whole doesn’t progress enough. For many teachers, each step along this tightrope brings up unpleasant memories from their own childhood.

As Waldorf teachers, we are aware that the teaching of math is more than just an intellectual exercise. We engage the will of the students as we use movement and rhythmical exercises to teach the times tables. Through appropriate stories, we engage the feeling realm of the students and spark their interest in math. Rudolf Steiner, the founder of the first Waldorf school, spoke of the importance of “permeating the soul with mathematics in the right way” and how a healthy relationship to mathematics can benefit the student’s later spiritual development.

Certainly, math in a Waldorf school is viewed differently and taught differently. Yet, the problems we face are often the same as in the mainstream. All too often, a class enters middle school with many of the students weak in math and saying, “I’m bad at math, and I hate it.” Why is this so? How can we do better? That’s what seasoned teachers Nettie Fabrie, Wim Gottenbos and myself, Jamie York, set out to explore in our book Making Math Meaningful: A Source Book for Teaching Math in Grades One through Five, published by Jamie York Press.

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