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The Foundations Of Algebra, Through Pre-K Arts Classes

Sarah Tan
Students at Educare learn math through dance steps.

STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math, and it’s quite the buzzword these days in the education world. Teachers are looking at ways to encourage their students to be more math-oriented. For one program in New Orleans, the solution is to start introducing math early — as early as preschool.

Nanette Ledet teaches a class of 15 rambunctious preschoolers the basics of algebraic thinking. The children count scarves and identify patterns, two concepts that will help later with algebra. The special program at the Educare Center in Gentilly is a collaboration with Wolf Trap New Orleans, an arts organization based in Virginia. Wolf Trap set out to teach reading through art, but now has a focus on STEM. Jenny James, Wolf Trap director, says that was serendipitous.

“They saw that students were making gains in math concepts despite the fact that the focus was on literacy,” she says. “Just by the natural concepts in art forms, imagine the gains the students would make in math.”

Art and math were surprisingly a more natural fit, she says. For the past three months, the preschoolers have taken a half-hour class that will prime them to learn math in Kindergarten and grade school.

Just by moving scarves around, Ledet teaches math.

“We were using elements of patterns, which is the beginning of algebraic thinking for children this age, and also counting, sequential counting, and line order,” she says.

The scarves are like the sides of an equation that children will see in later years. Learning to even out the two sides is the basis of algebra. The children are also learning pattern recognition through dance moves. The Wolf Trap program points out everyday applications of math in the real world. That’s very important, says Cindy Ybos, adjunct professor in math instruction at the University of New Orleans.

“For most people the traditional image of math is arithmetic, two plus two equals four,” she says. “Most people don’t realize that math goes way beyond arithmetic.”

Ybos continues, “If we help students understand that what they’re doing in their normal daily lives connects to what the teacher’s asking them to do in the classroom, they do not become as afraid of it.”

Giselle Scott, the lead teacher at Educare, says an arts approach to math helps her students grasp concepts.

“We had been teaching math, but not in this way,” she says, alluding to the arts-based approach. “It helps to address different kinds of learners: audio learners, kinesthetic learners, and visual learners.”

The class uses dances, songs, and interactive activities to help students learn counting and introduce them to addition and subtraction. Scott says she can already see her students feeling more comfortable with math.

“They can now recognize how many objects are there without counting,” she says. They can look and say there are five items, without counting each one. “They’re really now responding to math much quicker than they did before and they’re excited about it.”

The excitement is easy to see as the students jump up to count dance steps. Jenny James wants students to feel more comfortable with math than she did at their age.

“I know when I was young, math was always very scary,” she says. “But were trying to find a way to make it accessible to show children that math is all around you and it doesn’t have to be this scary complex thing.”

The children take the scarves they’ve been counting, stand behind each other and start waving them in the air. Their teacher is using a second line to put math first.

Support for education reporting on WWNO comes from Baptist Community Ministries, Entergy, and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.