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“I am a Mathematician”: Building Classroom Community through Counting Collections

Posted by admin on Jul 27, 2023 8:00:00 AM

In this Stenhouse Summer Series blog post, first-grade teacher Lauren Carr writes about the ways that Counting Collections can be a powerful routine for both math and community building.


It’s the first day of school with my first graders. The theme of the day is getting to know my students and starting to build community. When it’s time for math I start off with a whole-group question: “Where do we see math in the world?” At first students point to things around the classroom, like the counters and pattern blocks.

"The clock is math!" chimes in one student.

"If I have five cookies and eat two of them, that’s math," shares another.

The goal of this first math question of the school year is for these first graders to get excited about math, encourage them to see math in their day-to-day experiences, and to understand that math is everywhere. This first math conversation also sets the foundation for an essential question we'll explore throughout the year--how can we use math to make a difference in the world?

A metal tray with puzzle pieces arranged in groups for counting 

As our conversation about where we see math in the world continues, a student points to the Counting Collection cart. That’s my cue to introduce Counting Collections. I grab a bunch of containers and bags filled with small items. Each bag has between 25 to 150 items. I go around the carpet where students are gathered and hand each student a bag of items and tell them to count the items in the bag. They go find a comfortable spot and start counting things like marker tops, puzzle pieces, and erasers. I walk around and hear, “How do we count them?” “What number comes after 100?” “They won’t share with me.” To each, I respond with one of my favorite open-ended questions, “I wonder how you are going to figure that out?” This is Day One of Counting Collections. 


What are Counting Collections?

A Counting Collection is a number sense activity in which students are given a set of objects or items and are tasked with counting them in a way that makes sense to them. The collection can consist of various items, such as buttons, erasers, stickers, or any other small objects that can be easily counted. The purpose of Counting Collections is not only to develop basic counting skills but also to enhance mathematical thinking, problem-solving abilities, and pattern recognition. Counting Collections are a hands-on approach to math that allow students to engage with concrete materials and make connections between numbers and real-world objects. It encourages them to explore different counting strategies, such as grouping or skip counting, and develop strong number sense and understanding of quantity. Counting Collections can be integrated into lessons, centers, or even as a standalone activity, fostering student engagement and helping students build positive math identities. (To read more about Counting Collections, check out Choral Counting & Counting Collections: Transforming the PreK-5 Math Classroom, edited by Megan L. Franke, Elham Kazemi and Angela Chan Turrou.)

Fostering Positive Math Identity Through Counting Collections

All children come to school with brilliant math ideas. It’s our job to listen in order to cultivate and facilitate those great math ideas and support students in building positive math identities. Cultivating a positive math identity goes beyond teaching mathematical concepts. It’s about empowering students to embrace their mathematical abilities, encouraging critical thinking, and promoting an inclusive learning environment. Counting Collections serve as a powerful tool in supporting the development of a positive math identity, as this activity allows students to see and recognize patterns, ask questions, make mistakes, and engage in meaningful discussions. 


How Do Counting Collections Build Community?

As I make my way through the classroom on that first day of school, listening to students' ideas as they count collections, I hear one student say, with frustration in their voice, “I wanted to count that, you have to share!”

The other student replies, “well how about you count this pile and I will count this and then we will put it together to see how much we have!” They then happily count their part of the collection and then proceed to push their piles together and count the collection again.

Counting Collections in the classroom serves as a powerful tool that goes beyond teaching students how to count. It fosters essential skills such as perseverance, pattern recognition, and communication. It creates opportunities for students to connect with one another and for teachers to develop a deeper understanding of their students. In my classroom, Counting Collections is one of the foundations that supports me in fostering a strong classroom community. By encouraging students to work together and share their experiences, Counting Collections become a way for students to get to know one another. The first day of school is both intimidating and exciting, and Counting Collections is a place where students can bring all of that energy, a place to connect socially with new classmates and to experience math in joyful ways. While the first day of school is just the beginning of our journey with Counting Collections, it is an opportunity to establish social and mathematical connections that will continue throughout the school year. When students feel comfortable and safe in their surroundings, they are more likely to actively participate and share their ideas openly. These connections can transcend math.

About the Author

Lauren headshotLauren Carr is a first-grade grade teacher in Los Angeles, CA. She graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles with a Masters in Education. She is passionate about social justice and understanding students’ mathematical thinking. Follow Lauren on Twitter @__Laurencarr and Instagram @laurensteachingstyle.