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Prime Numbers


If Special Ed teachers are drama queens as my professor at Western New Mexico University claims, then teaching is the ultimate form of improv.

For example, when a seventh grade student in inclusion math asked me what prime numbers were, I hadn't prepared a lesson to teach him. How do you really explain prime numbers, other than the fact that it is a number divisible only by 1 and itself? His eyes were glazing over. So I quickly changed course to the best way I understood prime numbers.

"Prime numbers are anti-social."


"Do you know what anti-social means?"

"Anti-social is how we sometimes describe people who don't like to hang out with others. Sometimes this is the person who sits away from everyone in class or at an event, and they're scowling, and they don't want to be there. This is a person maybe who stays at home everyday, refusing to go out because they don't want to see anyone except themselves."

His eyes perk up. He knows what I'm talking about. Boys around him lean in to hear how Ms. Shyu's description of the anti-social ties to middle school math.

"Prime numbers are anti-social. They only chill with themselves. And 1. Everyone likes 1."

Here comes a demonstration of figuring out if 13 is a prime number. Oohs and aahs ensue.

"You, son, are a composite number. Composite numbers like to hang out with themselves, and 1, but also with lots of other numbers. Composite numbers are social. They have lots of friends."

Guffawing begins. He figures out on his own that 12 is a composite number. He is a composite number. My work is (sort of) done.


Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator best known for "Pedagogy of the Oppressed," and Ira Shor, the American educator who collaborated with Freire and wrote many books on his own, both emphasized that teachers should start where the students are at. It seems like a simple concept, but it is not.

Teachers and other authority figures are used to having the world revolve around ourselves. To reach people who are starting out life in a world different from our own (if only because a few years have passed between when we were born and when they were born), we must de-center ourselves and figure out ways to speak that are meaningful for them.

You seem to have an intuitive sense of how to do this, but it still takes work and conscious effort. Keep up the great work!

Great Job! As teachers, we sometimes forget to meet students at their level. We are so involved with meeting the standards and teaching the adopted curriculum, that the child in front of us becomes a number and not a person with a history. We need to find and make a connection to their history and not just where we come from.
Our students are no different than we are. All of us want to know how this will pertain to our own lives. Why is this important to know?

What a wonderful way to teach prime and composite numbers--using THEIR language instead of ours. It certainly makes sense to speak in a language with which they are familiar.

HI ~ What a fantastic way to explain the prime number. I am doing my student teaching in a 4th, 5th, 6th SDC class. And, I just explained about what is a prime or composite number today to a student. I did the traditional and boring way and I am glad my student didn't ask me why. But for future refrence, I will use your story to explain. I think the anti-social story will always be in their mind, and they will never forget about it.

Very clever. Your students are lucky to have you. Keep up the great work!

Improv is it! I have been a teacher for a very long time. I recently moved into the Special Ed arena.

My best teaching moments have never come out of lessons plans. They have always come out of "improv", those times when an immediate response was required by an inquiring child's mind and one has only to "improv"! Usually those moments are ones the children never forget! You, as a fairly new teacher, learned the best lesson possible. Let the children guide you.

Thinking on your feet requires standing up to the moment's challenge. Great job, Jessica. May Paolo Freire bless all our efforts from his special perch.

You are amazing. i wish I could get all my students here at Cal State Northridge to think as creatively as you. Your comments abouting "bribing" your students in Teachers Magazine totally paralleled our BIP project (behavior intervention plan) where every one had to change the behavior of one student in their classroom from negative to positive using reinforcers of some kind ("bribes" as you call them).
I assigned the class an extra credit project to contact you. i hope you have the time to email them back, otherwise they will not get the extra credit.
john L

RESPONSE: Haha! John, I will be sure to reply to your students (at the very least, for the sake of extra credit. Thanks for letting me know!)

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Recent Comments

  • John Labovsky: You are amazing. i wish I could get all my read more
  • Tom: Thinking on your feet requires standing up to the moment's read more
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  • Passing through: Very clever. Your students are lucky to have you. Keep read more
  • Linda Liu: HI ~ What a fantastic way to explain the prime read more




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