Cordley teacher wins grant to teach first graders hands-on math with blocks

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When you hear the term CGI, you might think of eye-popping visuals seen on the big screen. But to teachers like Sarah Rand at Cordley Elementary School, the term means an intuitive approach to teaching math and a method of listening to students and how they learn.

Rand’s first-grade classroom will sport a new blocks center that will help her use Cognitively Guided Instruction, thanks to a $250 grant from Western Governors University. Across Kansas, 80 teachers applied for the Fund My Classroom grant, and Rand was one of 23 who received it.

To Rand, Legos, Magna-Tiles and wooden blocks are the type of tactile learning tools 6-year-olds must get their hands on. One of her challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic was finding ways for first graders to use their pockets of free time away from their iPads and worksheets.

Students really need to stack, touch, move and pile up objects to learn math, Rand said. The block center will help her fill those pockets of time with important learning opportunities. 

“I’m using the research,” Rand said. “If you ask them to figure out what is 3 plus 8, little kids that age will want to get out three counters and eight counters and combine the whole set.”

Rand is no stranger to monetary awards for her involvement with CGI, which she has practiced for a decade. In 2018, she earned a $10,000 award and a trip to Washington D.C. to celebrate her accomplishment as a winner of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics Teaching.

Rand grew up in Ottawa and began her teaching career at Success Academy, a high-performing charter school in the South Bronx. Rand learned about the concept of CGI in New York and brought her knowledge back to Kansas. Before teaching at Cordley, Rand worked in the small Central Heights school district of Richmond, south of Ottawa.

Rand said she uses CGI nearly every day and hopes to incorporate it into a doctorate in curriculum and instruction. She didn’t “love math” while growing up, so she hopes to change that with her students.

“After doing (CGI) for a long time you kind of realize how inappropriate it can be for us to teach kids some of the procedures that we tend to drill,” she said.

As for fall planning, Rand said with CGI there’s only so much to plan ahead. It will really take getting to know her new students to see the path her teaching will take in the 2021-2022 school year.

“I’m going to talk to them, and look at their work, and see how they’re solving, and how they’re counting, and how they’re thinking, and that’s how I’ll decide on future problems to give them,” she said.

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