The Sound of Counting

By Lynette Wiebe, Kindergarten Teacher

We do a LOT of counting in Kindergarten. Counting with correlation, with cardinality, with accuracy. Counting to thirty, to sixty, to one hundred. Counting forwards, counting backwards. Counting on from a number, counting back from a number. Skip counting by tens, fives and twos. Counting days of school. Counting collections.

“ee-sah” “EE-SAH” “dala-wa” “DALA-WA” “tat-lo” “TAT-LO”…

Counting is the foundation of number sense; it helps us organize ideas and it helps us reason. There are so many ways to show or tell about an amount… with objects, in pictures, with fingers. With numerals and tallies. Using classroom systems like base ten or ten frames. And with words, written or spoken. Spoken amounts—counting—in any language is legitimate. In kindergarten, we go on from counting to arithmetic and other mathematics, but it all starts with counting.

In primary school, every day starts with Calendar Time. At the beginning of the year, my kindergarten class starts counting how many days we’ve been in school by putting one stick in a pocket every day. When we get to ten days of school, we put the ten sticks into a bundle and move the bundle into a second pocket called “tens”. Eventually, we will bundle ten bundles into one giant bundle, and put them in a third pocket called “hundreds.” Then we celebrate one hundred days in school with a special party. In the meantime, every day we count to ten, listening for the cue to make the next bundle.

I start by holding up the sticks and count in English. On the first day I ask the students if they know how to say the number one in another language. A few hands go up… Spanish, Chinese. Enthusiasm grows each day as students volunteer what they know. By the time we get to our first ten days we are counting those sticks in seven different languages: English, Spanish, Mandarin, Tagalog, Hindi, Farsi and German, all brought to school from the students’ homes.

My own parents’ first language was German. When they went to elementary school in the 1950s they were shamed for not knowing English, and their first language was not welcome. Our children, however, inhabit an expanded sense of community. Our children’s neighbors are from thousands of miles away but sit in the same circle on the rug. In my classroom, students’ first languages are very welcome.

I felt the pain of others last year, loud and clear, amid the civil right renaissance that emerged in 2020. I redoubled my effort to make sure my students would leave my classroom with a feeling of being seen and a sense of belonging.

For a kindergartener, belonging has a lot to do with family. To ensure feelings of belonging young students require their work environment to have a bit of family present. That means they need to see and hear what is familiar at home at school. They need to feel welcome to bring tangible artifacts from home, including language. They feel proud when they not only to teach the language, but also share some other detail about their family or home on any given day.

One student volunteers to count the way her mom taught her, in “Filipino”. My associate and I try to correct her: Tagalog. “No,” the student corrects us, “Filipino.” Out of deference for what she wants to teach the class, we go with it. Every day she teaches the class to count in “Filipino.” A few weeks later, she has clearly had an illuminating conversation at home. She proceeds to count with the class in her mother’s language, which she states is called Tagalog. Letting the students be the teachers gives them ownership of their own cultural instruction.

Our classroom has such a rich diversity of backgrounds. At first some students may feel a sort of ownership as they teach their classmates how to count to ten like mom or grandpa. But the ownership spreads. It so happens that the students learn well, and they start volunteering to lead in a language not their family’s as their classmates echo them. A child whose mom is from Taiwan leads in Spanish, a child whose family has always spoken English leads in Mandarin. A child learns a new way to count from a friend not-from-school, then teaches the class in Korean.

Each year I add as many titles to my classroom library as my budget affords, titles that highlight different ideas of family, different kinds of homes, and different celebrations. I plan activities that expose students to various cultures and ethnicities. But teaching diversity does not need to be something the teacher does. Teaching diversity can also be creating a tiny space in the day for students to lead. In a school like HPA, which has the luxury of a diverse student population, teaching diversity can be as simple as letting the students sparkle. And that is the sound of students counting.

Kindergartners Counting in Different Languages

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