The Fast and Furious First Grade

Despite being the elementary math curriculum coordinator for my district, I have rarely gotten the opportunity to visit classrooms this year. Today was one of those rare days, and I was so blown away by the two classrooms I observed. Hopefully I’ll have a chance to write about both of them, but tonight I’m going to focus on the first grade classroom.

All year long I’ve heard great things about this first grade teacher, so I was excited to finally have a chance to visit her classroom. When I came in, she had the students on the floor in front of her. She was sitting in a chair holding up seven fingers.


The students each had a small whiteboard on which they wrote all of the “facts” they could about the number the teacher was showing. After the students had a minute or two, she called one of the students up to the front to share her facts. One of the things she did that I really liked was tell the student, “Please check your audience to make sure they are ready before you begin.” The student actually stopped, looked, and waited for her peers to be quiet before starting!

Here are the facts the student had written on her board:

  • 5 + 2 = 7
  • 2 + 5 = 7 (When they got to this one, the teacher asked, “What kind of fact is this?” and the students responded that it was a turnaround fact of the previous fact.)
  • 7 – 5 = 2
  • 7 – 2 =5 (Again, the teacher stopped and asked, “What kind of fact is this?” and the students responded that it was a related subtraction fact to the previous fact.)
  • 5 + 2 + 3 = 10
  • 10 = 5 + 2 + 3 (This time the teacher stopped and asked, “This one’s interesting. The 10 is on this side of the equal sign. Why does that work?” She called on a student who gave an unsure response, but he kept at it, and the beautiful thing is that she gave him plenty of think time rather than quickly passing to another student. She knew equality was a tough concept for her students so she wanted to slow down at this point. After the student finally articulated that the values on both sides of the equal sign were equal to 10, she called on another student, “What does the equal sign mean?” and another student, “What does the equal sign mean?” and a third student, “What does the equal sign mean?” I saw that she does this repeated questioning anytime there is an important point that she wants to make sure the class hears multiple times.)

She did the same routine holding up 9 fingers and had another volunteer share his answer. Then she told the students that they were going to count and needed to get in their counting circle. What surprised me is that her students all quickly put away their white boards and ran over to another area of the room to sit in a circle. I’m envious of her fast transitions. Her students wasted no time. She was able to start her counting circle in less than a minute.

She sat down on the floor with them and told them they were going to start by counting to 120 by ones. She said, “One,” passed the ball she had in her hands to the next student, and off they went. The class quickly counted, although a couple of students got hung up here and there. Again, she did a great job of giving the students think time, and it’s clear she taught the other students to be respectful of one another because the other students were very patient about waiting.

After counting to 120 by ones, she had the students count backward by ones starting at 90. She said, “90,” passed off the ball, and then they came to a screeching halt. The first student had no idea what to say! She thought for a minute and finally said, “91?” The teacher replied, “Remember, we’re counting backward, not forward.” She gave the student a little more time and then said, “Do you want to get some help?” The student nodded and then ran over to their class hundred chart. After consulting it, she came back and said, “89,” with confidence. From there the count continued a bit more slowly than counting forward, but still very smoothly. When the count got back to that first girl, she had no trouble at all.

Next the teacher challenged the students by saying they were going to start at 33 and count to 52. They must have been familiar with this routine because the students immediately started trying to figure out who was going to say 52. Once all the students held their thumbs up to indicate they they were ready, she asked for their predictions. It was interesting to see that four different students were guessed, but they were four students all sitting next to each other, so clearly the students were all within a reasonable range, but not perfectly accurate. They tested out the count to see who it would actually land on and then jumped into yet another count! For their final count, they counted forward by tens to 120. Because the count went through so few students, she actually had the count go clockwise and counterclockwise to ensure every student got to take part at least once. Nicely done!

Then the students were up yet again. This time they moved back to the area they were sitting in when class started. They continued counting by tens, but this time they used a Math Rack.


The students clearly have used this tool countless times throughout the year. They were able to count by tens from 0, from non-zero starting numbers, and they even counted backward by tens from 100, 98, and 91. I liked how she even had them make connections to their work this year making tens.  When the students counted by tens and got to 93, she covered the remaining counters and said, “We’re at 93. How many more to 100?” When a student said, “7,” she replied, “How did you know?” and the student said it was like a tens fact, he knew 3 + 7 is 10.

And that’s not all! She had the students hop up and meet her back on the carpet where they had done the counting circle so she could show them how to play a new game. It was a matching game. Students drew a green  card that would say, “What is 10 more than ___?” The blank was filled in with a number. The students then drew a white card looking for the matching answer. After teaching students the game, they got to play it in pairs for 5-10 minutes.

And that’s not all! When the game was over, the students quickly put away their cards and met the teacher back on the carpet where class began. She started showing them an activity they were going to continue the next day. This time they would play a game by themselves where they would roll a dice that would give them a starting number from 1-6. Then in their journals, they needed to count by tens starting at that number and record their counting pattern in their journal. She modeled one turn and then had other students model a few more turns before the class ended.


Recounting it all, I can’t believe how much math these kids did in 60 minutes. It was incredible! And while it seems like they bounced around a lot, it was all very intentional. First of all, she planned today’s activities based on her formative assessment of the students after they did several lessons on counting by tens the previous week. She didn’t feel they were strong enough so she wanted to give them more practice. She also wanted to ensure they were comfortable doing it in multiple ways. This was such a smart move on her part because it would have been easy to think that her students “got it” early in the lesson, but when I played the matching game with one of her students, I was intrigued that the student knew 10 more instantly for some of the cards, but for others she had to consult the hundred chart.

The other thing I loved was how many opportunities she gave the students to get up and move around. It would have been very easy for her to set up shop at the front of the room and try to get through all of her planned activities. However, as we all know, students get very fidgety after sitting for a few minutes. While her students did sit for most of the class period, the constant change in locale got them up and moving and made the class feel very active, energetic, and fun.

And above all else, I was struck at how much respect the teacher showed her students by giving them the think time that they needed and how excited she was to hear their thinking and ideas.  Her respect has clearly rubbed off on her students because I heard numerous unsolicited compliments given out by students whenever a classmate was willing to go to the front to share their work or demonstrate counting by ten. It’s such a great mathematical community, and I’m so happy I got to visit even if just for a little bit.


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