It's OK with Molly Kitterer if some of the students count on their fingers during math class. Calling the method "attached manipulatives," the teacher encourages the younger students at St. Johns Lane Elementary School in Ellicott City to use fingers, toes or anything else that makes math comprehension easier.
Apparently her methods work.
The 30-year-old Carroll County resident was recently selected Outstanding Mathematics Teacher by the Maryland Council of Teachers of Mathematics. She was chosen from a group of nominated teachers representing more than 1,000 elementary schools across the state.
Kitterer has taught for eight years, the last four as a Gifted and Talented Resource teacher for fourth- and fifth-grade students at St. Johns Elementary School. She also teaches math activities to students in the other grades and chairs the school's math committee.
"I am not the goddess of math," laughed Kitterer. "If we can give students the tools, they can go about learning for themselves."
Such tools, Kitterer said, were not available when she was a 12th-grade student attending a private school. She was among the few women in her advanced math class, and Kitterer recalls sitting in the back of the room reluctant to ask questions.
"The teacher explained everything once, and if you didn't get it, that was your problem," she said.
Now that Kitterer is a teacher, she aims to tackle some of the problems of working with numbers.
"I found out that a lot of times there is a way you can explain things which helps people understand what's going on," she said.
Kitterer began her career in 1982, teaching a variety of subjects to second- and sixth-grade students at Templeton Elementary School in Prince George's County.
She earned a bachelor of arts degree in elementary education in 1982 from Pennsylvania State University. And she will receive a master's degree in gifted education from Johns Hopkins University next spring.
As she tackles the various methods of learning with her advanced fourth-and fifth-grade classes, she asks students to consider whether they are left-brain dominant or right-brain dominant. Possible gender differences also are discussed.
"I've noticed with my students that there's a point in math when some of the concepts seem to be easier for male students to grasp. They seem to be right-brain dominant; they can handle abstract symbols. Female students are left-brain dominant -- abstracts are not their favorite things. Their thoughts have to be organized," Kitterer said.
Learning styles -- visual, auditory, or a combination of both -- also are discussed with the students, who assess their own progress.
"Kids who are visual don't usually say a lot. They are wonderful writers and they draw a great deal. . . . They have a good memory," Kitterer said.
"Auditory learners are talkers. They think out loud, they don't like to write things down -- they like logical things," Kitterer explained.
"Fractions are visual," notes Kitterer, and visual learners have no problem understanding them; auditory learners need objects she refers to as "manipulatives" to help them understand various parts of a whole.
For example, students can learn from hands-on experience using such manipulatives, like "color trains" -- wooden rods and cubes in various colors and sizes that comprise a whole. By moving the rods around, young mathematicians can discover relationships like 2/8 and 4/8.
Last year, when Kitterer was pregnant, the students even began calculating the amount of time before the baby was to be born and how many calories their teacher was eating.
"I was a walking manipulative," laughed Kitterer.
Problem-solving is also used, but the focus is on the process.
"There's usually more than one answer," said Kitterer. "The way they go about getting that answer is the most important thing. Once students are equipped with the strategies, they have the ability to go onto the next situation," Kitterer said.
Kitterer works with her advanced students for two years. She believes that by the time they are fifth-graders, they have established their math philosophy and continue to work at it.
"There is no right or wrong way. . . . The child can select whatever strategy works best for him or her," Kitterer said.
The mother of two daughters -- 4 -year-old Alyssa and 2-month-old Erin -- she believes parents have an important role in their children's mastery of numbers, and she suggests they adopt an "open attitude" about problem-solving and math.
She encourages parents to show their children how math relates to everyday life. Preschool children, for example, can count their toys while they are putting them away. Older children can find out how much things cost at the grocery store; household expenses can be discussed.
"My 4-year-old daughter already understands what things cost," Kitterer said. "She has $5 in her purse whenever we go shopping. She's learning already about the prices of things and whether she has enough money to buy certain objects."