Solving the Ultimate Equation: How to Make Math Fun for Elementary Learners

Ashley Benedict, AIF Fellow (Photo courtesy of Ashley Benedict)

I’ve never liked math.

And here’s the thing: I never imagined that one day I would call myself a math teacher.

The teachers I’ve had in the past have been either discouraging or disengaged, droning on for hours about complex concepts without checking to see whether we were understanding the content or not. I remember teachers who would ignore my questions and belittle me for not grasping what they thought was so simple. I remember copying down equations without ever truly knowing why or how it was important for me to learn these things.

Math, to me, has never felt fun.

Coming into Jaisalmer meant that I had a very daunting question to address: How do I find a way to create engaging and useful math lessons for three different grade levels?

How do I inject fun into a very traditionally not fun subject?

Before I could answer that question, however, I needed to know a few things: 1) How the students are currently being taught, 2) What they already know, and 3) How they learn. But after only a few days of observing the classes, I soon came to the realization that these were not the only factors to take into consideration. There was also varying classroom sizes, inconsistency of student attendance, lack of resources, lack of physical space, and students of different ages with varying levels of lesson retention in each class. To top it off: all students – as well as the teachers – are ESL learners.

That’s a lot to take in.

I quickly became overwhelmed by the magnitude of factors that I needed to address, frozen by inexperience and an overbearing internal motivation to do well – and to not mess up these students’ education – because for many Merasi children, this school is their only access to education.

Teacher Nawab teaching his Little Class. (Photo courtesy of Akaram Khan)

Established in 2007, the Merasi School tutorial has quickly become a part of this community’s legacy. It has already created one generation of proficient English speakers; it has produced a youthful generation of self-confident leaders and changemakers. And within the span of 15 years, it has gone from only a handful of students in the classroom to full capacity, counting over 75 students signed up for classes. (1)

It proves that education has the power to do what had previously been thought to be impossible by helping the next generation to move beyond society’s predetermined definition of their inherent worth and make a difference within their lives and the community. In short: education means opportunity.

All of this, of course, meant the pressure was on – so I did what any rational person would do.

I googled it.

  • Counting games for children
  • Fun counting activities
  • How to teach effectively in 2 hours
  • ESL counting to 100 lessons
  • Games that don’t need resources
  • How to incorporate ESL learning into math
  • Activities for large young classrooms

These are just a few of my google searches over the past two months. Over and over again, when my creativity was blocked or the resources available didn’t seem like enough, I would run to my trusty search engine for an answer. And what I found was pages and pages of information and dozens of YouTube channels – all of it so overwhelming that I didn’t know what to do with it.But in a way, it made me feel better, because I knew that I wasn’t alone. I’m not the first to encounter this puzzling task. This has been done before. Teachers all around the world are facing the same never-ending journey that I am: how to make learning fun and engaging for their students.

Research by cognitive and educational psychologists show that there is a positive correlation between “fun in the classroom” and the development of authentic learning and long-term memory. There is also clinical evidence through neuroimaging and measurement of neurotransmitters that stressful environments impact a student’s ability to learn and retain information, and that higher cognitive areas of the brain are even blocked when a student is experiencing stress or anxiety. Instead, retention improves when it is paired with strong positive emotion – such as fun. Studies have also proven that making educational content relatable to students’ lives, interests, and experiences can also help improve long-term retention. (2)

With all of this information at my fingertips, I decided to jump right in.

Working with Teacher Saina’s Middle Class in learning how to use the matching cards. (Photo courtesy of Akaram Khan)

The first thing I – very quickly – learned was: teacher comprehension and buy-in is the most important factor when trying to build a curriculum, especially when there is a language barrier. The teachers are the ones who should do the teaching, because they have the ability to communicate to the students what I simply cannot. They are also the ones who will be here in the long-term – not me – which means that ensuring they understand the content adds more longevity and sustainability to the curriculum than if I were to try to teach it on my own. Thus, establishing consistent teacher meetings and training the teachers on activities and lesson plans beforehand quickly became a crucial turning point in my project.

Now, the teachers are invested in not only the students’ learning, but their own. They have taken ownership over lessons and now have higher levels of confidence in teaching students new ways of learning.

It is no longer a question of “What do you have planned for today?” but rather “What are we doing today?”

The second thing I learned was how to make the most of what I’ve got. From making 400 flashcards out of 100, to finding wooden cubes and deciding to turn them into dice, to using popsicle sticks as place value blocks . . . getting creative and resourceful has never felt so satisfying. Because here’s the thing: the students love it. I now get to watch them every day, come into math class excited to learn and find out what I have in store for that day – even if it’s just a simple game of dice, matching cards, or grouping shapes together on the chalkboard for counting practice. What may seem simple to me is new, fresh, and exciting for them.

The spark I see inside a student when they grasp a new concept or learn a new game is all I need to know that I am doing something right.

But the most important lesson I’ve learned so far is this: some ideas and plans will work, while others won’t. I just never know until I try. And when an idea doesn’t work like I thought it might, it is okay to feel frustrated – but it’s also an opportunity to take a step back, evaluate the situation, and re-adjust – again and again and again, until something clicks.

That’s what solving an equation is all about . . . right?

(1) Information gleaned from conversation with Sarwar Khan; Director of Jaisalmer based NGO Lok Kala Sagar Sansthan (LKSS), and Karen Lukas; Director of Folk Arts Rajasthan, a US-based non-profit Folk Arts Rajasthan (FAR)

(2) Morton, Andrew. 2017. “Scientific Evidence Confirms Learning Must be Fun.” Advance: Escuela de Idiomas, March 17, 2017.

About the Author:
Ashley Benedict was born and raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan and earned her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and Creative Writing from Grand Valley State University. As an undergraduate, she acted as an ambassador for the Center for Women and Gender Equity; worked as a peer educator to provide on-campus presentations for sexual assault prevention; and led student volunteer trips to nonprofits throughout the U.S. Upon graduation, Ashley joined AmeriCorps NCCC as a Team Leader and cultivated skills working in a variety of fields, including disaster recovery, veteran support, community outreach, and addressing food insecurity. In recognition of her efforts, she received the Gold Presidential Volunteer Service Award as well as Team Builder of the Year Award. She then moved on to work as an AmeriCorps VISTA with the Iowa Disaster Human Resource Council in Des Moines, Iowa, where she built up the organization’s capacity by conducting qualitative and quantitative data collection projects to inform and create a revitalized organizational strategic plan. Her most recent position included working as Logistics Coordinator for an international disaster relief organization, All Hands and Hearts, in response to Hurricane Ida in Louisiana, the North Complex Fire in Northern California, and flash flooding in Kentucky. Ashley acted as a liaison between All Hands and Hearts and community members; acquired and assessed homeowner cases; and managed quality data input, collection, and auditing for each program. Her experience has helped her strengthen skills in communication, facilitation, data collection and analysis, and community engagement. With a background in psychology, she finds that it has helped inform her work by providing more understanding and compassion when working with communities who have undergone emotional duress. Her continued passion for service work and community immersion is what motivated her to become an American Indian Fellow.



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