Do you know what centicubes are? In the primary classroom they are the annoying little (exactly 1cm x 1cm x 1cm) blocks you find everywhere after maths lessons. Like sand in your shoes (and your hair and your ears and…) after a beach picnic, centicubes lodge and nestle in all the forgotten spaces in a classroom. Until someone is getting changed for PE and finds out the centicubes’ hiding place and their pointy plastic edges with the squeal from a bare foot.
What centicubes are really useful for, though, is teaching about the decimal system. As well as the irritating little fellas (‘units’) they come in sticks of ten, and in slabs of 100 and in cubes of 1000. And until Fushe Kosove I’ve never taught the decimal system without them.
Well, we don’t have centicubes in Fushe Kosove and after a few days of drawing blobs on the board, I realise that we are going to need something to fulfil that function. And so it is that I spent much of my day today sellotaping beans together. Now we have sticks of ten beans and we have individual ‘unit’ beans. We can exchange one stick for ten singles, to help with calculations.
Could my time have been better spent? Perhaps, though there was a certain mesmerising monotony to the grouping and sticking of haricot. But the end result is something to be proud of. The children were enthusiastic about them (more so than I’ve ever seen a child responding to centicubes) and seemed to get the tens/ units concept, and the idea of exchange, as they manipulated the resources. Of course my bean counters are also locally-produced and recyclable. But most important of all, if you accidentally stepped on one with a bare foot there would be nothing but the cool smooth sensation of legumes between your toes. This is what mathematics should feel like.
Gjelane’s story is now told in a book published as The Rubbish-Picker’s Wife; an unlikely friendship in Kosovo (Elbow Publishing, 2015) and available on Amazon