I’ve had some crappy jobs in my life. Trying to sound enthusiastic about selling frozen steak when I was in high school is right up there near the top. Serving up blizzards with a smile and scrubbing toilets at Dairy Queen for $3.25 an hour probably makes the list too. But by far the worst job I’ve had was the year I spent substitute teaching 3rd grade in Fort Green, Brooklyn. Not because the pay was bad or the fact that it was thankless, though those things are both true. Not because of the administration, the students or even the parents. It was simply because I was totally and completely un-prepared and unqualified to stand in front of a class full of eight year olds and teach them anything, let alone the rudimentary and elementary skills third graders need to know to successfully move on in school and in life. I did the best I could. I didn’t kill any of them. Most of them moved on to the next grade. I can only hope they got some really great fourth grade teachers the following year.
The silver lining is that because of my personal experience, I understand how difficult teaching (and nurturing, nursing, psycho-analyzing, counseling, nurtition-izing, and to a degree, mothering) really is. I am a parent who completely entrusts my children to the system, because the system is almost always going to do a far better job of it than me. Of course there are mitigating circumstances. I am blessed and lucky to have 2 boys who enjoy, if not love, school; who are academically and socially where they are expected to be, who to date haven’t required extra support services to guide them through. I am also fortunate enough to have my kids in a private, International school. Had we still been in NYC, they would be weaving and wending their way through the NYC public school system, and this would be a completely different post. I am very fortunate. I drop my kids off at school every morning with a sandwich and a kiss and pick them up every afternoon with a snack and a hug. Some days they excitedly share with me something they’ve learned. Other days they run off and play with their friends. I make sure their homework is done, that we get in the required amount of reading time, that they get enough sleep, enough carrot sticks. Other than that, I tend to trust that they are learning what they need to learn.
My kids attend an IB school. It is—well, let’s just say very different—than the way I remember school. There is a lot more freedom, a lot more personal responsibility, a lot less ‘teaching’ in the way that most of us remember being taught. My husband and I were scandalized the first time we went into my eldest’s second grade class room and saw kids leaving the room willy-nilly, other children choosing to opt out of the lesson and do their own thing. And let’s just say we were legitimately concerned and wrote off the second half of his 2nd grade year. But last year he landed with the kind of teacher that you dream about. Part of her strength, at least in my eyes, was that she was able to explain the program in a way that made sense to me. What the IB program tries to do is teach kids how to think, how to approach a problem from more than one direction. So instead of standing at the front of the room and teaching that 2+5=7, they will ask the students to identify how many different ways you can get to seven. Sounds good, right? Count us in, we’re on board, Bob’s your uncle and all that.
Things were going swimmingly until it became apparent to me that there was no real urgency, push, or holding the kids accountable for memorizing their multiplication tables. This made me slightly anxious, but my son’s reading and writing skills were above average and I figured the rote math would come later in the year. It didn’t, and that made me anxious enough to buy some flash cards, something I swore I would never do. But that anxiety came to a head last night when at an orientation evening for 4th grade, a mathematics goal was identified as having kids know their multiplication tables through 9 by the end of fourth grade. (I won’t even ask why not 10. 10 is the easiest of all. Not to mention a nice, even number and a good place to stop). The focus will be on concept and usage as opposed to rote memorization.
Yeah…no. I have a big, old problem with that.
We are all the sum total of our own educational experiences. Methods and trends and ways of teaching change and evolve, as they should. Education should not be a static experience. Throw in different cultural and geographical expectations and the whole thing can get very heated, and very messy. I went to school in the 70s and the 80s. I am a child of the US public education system. I went to school prior to the current push for pre-K reading and algebra in 2nd grade and cuts to the art programs and teaching to the test and standardized scoring and No Child Left Behind. I had a run of the mill, small town education. And even I knew my times tables backward and forward by the end of third grade (thank you, Mrs. Vacca). So it is really difficult for me to understand why, even in a more progressive, slower building block approach like the IB program, kids aren’t expected to know their times table. Sure, it’s great that kids get to know the value of using multiplication in everyday life and how to approach problems from different angles….but, I also think it’s necessary for them to memorize their tables. Through 12.
There, I said it.
Some things you just need to memorize. The alphabet. What year the Magna Carta was signed. Your social security number. What year Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated. The times tables. You can teach concepts and usage alongside rote learning from time to time, it’s not going to kill them. In fact, it’s going to make their lives easier down the road. Every parent I have talked to with a child further along in school has said that their child has eventually needed to memorize the table. Why not do it out of the box and save the hassle?
Math is important. Literacy is important. Thinking independently and creatively is important. Problem solving is important. Being globally aware and socially responsible is important. And as any teacher you meet today will tell you, there aren’t enough hours in the day to teach everything that needs to be taught, let alone everything that parents have an expectation of being taught. But a little rote memorization can go a long way. What is the point in over whelming grade school kids with half lessons in geometry and probability if they can’t readily recall what 3 x 4 is? Surely their lives are going to be much easier if they can pull, from memory, the product of 12 times 8 before they get to fifth grade. I’m not talking about knuckle rapping or standing in the corner with a dunce cap on if you can’t multiply 4 by 9 in under 5 seconds, just a bit of good old-fashioned recitation to get things moving.
In the end, as was so clearly demonstrated to me in that classroom full of third graders, I am not a teacher, so maybe I don’t know what I am talking about. I can’t give you the answer.
Unless the question is 9×6 of course.
This went around Facebook recently and hit a little too close to home not to share
1. Teaching Math In 1960s
A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is 4/5 of the price. What is his profit ?
2. Teaching Math In 1970s
A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is 4/5 of the price, or $80. What is his profit?
3. Teaching Math In 1980s
A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is $80. Did he make a profit ? Yes or No
4. Teaching Math In 1990s
A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is $80 and his profit is $20 Your assignment: Underline the number 20.
5. Teaching Math In 2000s
A logger cuts down a beautiful forest because he is selfish and inconsiderate and cares nothing for the habitat of animals or the preservation of our woodlands. He does this so he can make a profit of $20. What do you think of this way of making a living? Topic for class participation after answering the question: How did the birds and squirrels feel as the logger cut down their homes? (There are no wrong answers, and if you feel like crying, it’s ok).