Saturday, April 13, 2013

In which I rant about mathematics

So, I am going to talk about math for a minute because I went ahead and clicked on a link on another blog post about Common Core that brought me here: an article that there was "no input from early childhood experts or educators" when the idea of Common Core was being brainstormed and that the Common Core "will lead to serious harm for the nation's kindergarten through third grade students."

First of all, I don't think it's possible to overhaul the educational system without at least a handful of childhood experts or educators behind your back. I'm just saying.

I'm supposed to believe that no early childhood experts or educators were involved in the process. No one sought the opinion of a single early childhood expert or educator. Not one?

I really just can't wrap my mind around that. Because there's this little thing called the Congressional Research Service—which, by the way, Andrew was hoping on working for before starting this little PhD stint (and they actually called to offer him an internship just weeks after we accepted a spot in the PhD program here and were too emotionally committed to back out). Basically what the CRS is is a service that does research for congressy stuff.

Andrew knows the Middle East and was hoping to land a post at the Middle East "desk." They have "desks" for anything under the sun that someone might want researched. I'm going to bet that their educational desk is manned by smart people with backgrounds in pedagogy. But I might be going out on a limb there.

Anyway, just as congress has their own little research staff, so too do other people in government have people they look to for advice. And often, but not always, they seek advice from people who actually know what they're talking about.

Like, today, I had a friend IM me to help her design a class for herself for her master's program. She wanted to study grassroots peace efforts in Palestine and Israel and thought I might point her in the right direction. So I asked Andrew and he gave me a list of books and so on to help her cobble together a proposal for a course.

She asked me because...Andrew.

If she had wanted to put together a course on car mechanics or why the bumble bees are dying I'm not so sure she would have sought me (me because of my link to Andrew) out.

Of course, I don't really know who is behind this whole thing but it's sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers and I'm just going to assume that there's at least one educator on that council. I don't really have to assume, though, because I can "meet the chiefs!"

In my home state of North Carolina (I'm pretty quick to adopt homes; please don't ask me where I'm from) we have *drumroll* June Atkinson, Superintendent of Public Instruction. In Massachusetts we have Mitchell Chester, Commissioner of Education. In American Samoa (because we're not imperialists), we have Jacinta S. Galea'i, Interim Director of Education.

Most states I looked at had some person with a fancy title that usually (okay always) included the word "education." Titles can be misleading though. Let's see if anyone has any sort of educational mojo behind their title. We'll look at June Atkinson, since she's "my" superintendent. According to the North Carolina Public Schools website:
Dr. Atkinson received a bachelor's degree in Business Education from Radford University, a master's degree in Vocational and Technical Education from Virginia Tech, and a doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy from North Carolina State University.
It looks like she checks out. Granted, there's not a lot of early childhood stuff flaunted about in that blurb but Im' going to assume that she at least learned something about early childhood education in her policy and leadership doctorate program or from her years of service in public education. I'll ask her if I ever meet her.

What does this have to do with math? I'll tell you.

The Christian Post went on to quote Dr. Nancy Carlsson-Paige at length and she brought up some valid concerns. Dr. Nancy Carlsson-Paige is a childhood education professor at Leslie University. She is also Matt Damon's there's that.

Here are a few of her quotes from The Christian Post:

"I'm very concerned about the harm that is created when you put inappropriate expectations on a nation of young children, you give them all kinds of damaging messages as well as increasingly eliminate their opportunities for healthy and genuine learning."

She says the standards "do not reflect the 'development characteristics and needs of young children. They are imposing expectations on young children that are inappropriate in a variety of ways.'" When you ask children to "learn specific content, facts and skills at certain ages," it's unfair because they might not be ready to learn the skills you're throwing at them. She says that teachers must therefore "'drill them,' which has resulted in 'an enormous increase in direct teaching and direct instruction,'" rather than exploration, I suppose. I don't know. It's the drilling thing that jogged my memory, in conjunction with thinking about mathematics instruction.

I shied away from math at a very young age due to drill-based instruction.

In grade three, my teacher was Mrs. Robinson. I was in a three-four split class. I'm not even sure if split classes are a thing nowadays but way back then they decided to combine grade levels if there weren't enough kids in either grade to make up another whole class.

Mrs. Robinson had had my brother the year before, I suppose it was, because she ordinarily taught grade four. Or perhaps she ordinarily taught grade three and had taught my brother two years previously. Whatever the case, she was inclined to like me because my brother was her star pupil and I was an awesome kid so she assumed I was just like him.

And I a certain extent. I was well-behaved and did good work and tried to be kind to everyone. But you should know that my brother was "the number man."

He seriously got that award at our swim club awards ceremony at the end of one summer for knowing everyone's best times for every event—because he just had a way with numbers. He could memorize them at a mention or a glance and could manipulate them in his head and...I didn't have that same skill and didn't get the same award, which is fine because being different is great! The award I got, though, was "the skinny award," for having ankles so spindly that they made our coach "want to puke."

So, that did wonders for my self esteem and body image and what have you...but I digress.

I wasn't blessed with the same knack for numbers that my brother was. I was blessed with chicken legs. And I struggled with math.

Every week we had to do a timed multiplication test. I can't remember how much time we were given or how many questions were on the paper (David probably does) but if you managed to get through every question before time ran out without making any mistakes then you got to pick a prize out of her prize box.

Want to know how many times I got to pick a prize?


I finished the test once without making any mistakes.

Want to know how many times my brother got to pick a prize?

Every single week, a fact he'd remind me of often on our walk* home. After all, it was "easy."

But it was also humiliating because I tried so hard! No matter how hard I tried, no matter how much I practiced, I still stunk at it! And I don't even have a good moral to the story because it wasn't like I worked and worked and worked and then on the last test of the year I finally got to pick a prize and thus we see how all my hard work paid off because I'd finally gotten it.

Oh, no. It's nothing romantic like that.

Instead my story goes: I worked and worked and worked and then finally and somewhat randomly finished the test without making a mistake and got to pick a prize but then had to suffer through several more weeks of not being able to finish. And thus we see that sometimes flukes happen.

Yeah, that's a great moral, though I think the lesson I learned was more along the lines of "I am not good at this at all."

What was even worse was when we had to play Around the World.

If you thought taking a timed multiplication test was bad news for me (the sweaty palms, the blank mind, the agony) you should have seen me trying to answer multiplication questions out loud and not only in front of the entire class but also in direct competition with one of my peers. This article explains the game fairly well:
two students stand beside each other and watch the teacher hold up flash cards. The student who answers correctly the quickest moves around the classroom to the next student's seat and repeats the process. When a student misses the mark, they take a seat wherever they are, and the other student moves on. 
I was totally reading that and nodding my head until I came to this sentence: "This is a great way to reinforce math concepts while giving students a fun, hands on, approach to class."

Immediately my mind came to a screeching halt (and it wasn't that erroneous comma that gave me pause (I'm a little comma-happy, myself)). That game, guys, was anything but fun. It was panic-inducing. Heart pounding, knees knocking, head swimming panic would set in every time Mrs. Robinson pulled out those blasted flashcards.

I'm okay at math now. My uncle helped me learn that I wasn't a complete dolt when it came to mathematics but it's still a huge barrier for me when considering graduate programs (not that I am quite yet because I have an insomniac for a baby (though he did go down at like 9:00 tonight, so who's lucky? Me!)) because there's a math section on the GRE and any given program might require me to take math or statistics (which Andrew once promised wasn't very "mathy" math (but he has since recanted time and again)). I got through college, though, and every class has an A beside it (sometimes with a little - (whatever that's for...some sort of problem with the printer, I guess)). I don't tell you that to brag (well, not entirely) but to give you an idea of how hard I busted my tail-end off to understand basic college math (because I did not willingly venture beyond the basics).

It's completely understandable that Dr. Nancy Carlsson-Paige has reservations about the Common Core promoting standards that might in turn force us back into "drill, baby, drill" pedagogical methods because not every child is ready to learn everything at the same time. But I'm not sure the Common Core seeks to do that.

Whenever you're teaching an entire room of students you have to employ various methods of teaching. Some kids might like drills; others might feel too pressured by them (I won't ask for a show of hands). Any method of teaching is going to reach some children and miss others. I don't think Common Core will force good teachers—with creativity, discernment, and great big hearts—to rely on "drilling" their students. Instead, I think teachers will continue to use their creativity, discernment, and great big hearts to reach out to their students and help them love learning.

Didn't we have standards in place before? If we didn't then why did kids have to take standardized test years ago?

No. I don't believe having standards will produce a robotic classroom where lessons are taught without energy or enthusiasms. Many schools have already adopted Common Core—even the "specialty" schools out here (arts- or science-focused schools, for example)—and classrooms seem to be functioning well.

Rachel's teacher is following common core and she does a lot of great stuff with the kids and the kids have a great time. I know that Rachel has learned a lot of things that I haven't (and couldn't have) taught her at home. School's amazing that way.

Continually failing at those timed multiplication tests in grade three taught me many things. I learned that I could try hard at things but that success wasn't guaranteed. I learned that it was okay to fail (my parents didn't put me up for adoption or anything; they loved me even if I didn't bring home a weekly award). I learned that teachers would still like me even if I wasn't perfect. I learned that I didn't have to be good at everything and that it was convenient to know people with different talents (because having David as a brother was awesome through all the years I struggled with math (hello (and many thanks) Free Tutor)); relationships are made up of give and take.

Perhaps those multiplication tests weren't a complete waste of time after all.

* I went on a little virtual walk through my old neighbourhood. I can't quite take you the way we went because Google Maps doesn't know you can take shortcuts through the woods (silly Google Maps). We'd go up Sutherland St, cut through yards to Toronto St (there's a path of sorts, I swear—I don't ever recall walking all the way around down Sutherland Ave), then we'd make our way over to (and through) Chelsea Park (which Google Maps will take you through) then we'd cross Apel and take a cut through those trees (which I'm sure are technically part of someone's backyard) to Toronto Place/Street and enter the school yard at the corner of Victoria and Toronto.

At least, I'm pretty sure that's the way we would go. I know we never walked up Coast Meridian Road and we rarely crossed at Sobel (though walking up Apel was totally an option).


  1. About the math drill/competition: I wonder if you would have had the same reaction if the subject had been spelling instead of math. Because remember that story about my mom: the teacher said if everyone got 100% on their spelling test, they would get to have a party. And so my mom, who ALWAYS got 100% on her spelling tests, was so nervous that she made a mistake for the first time that year, while everyone else in class got 100%, and she cost the entire class their party. I am sure this outcome was entirely NOT what the teacher expected. (She set the incentive up for the kids who never studied; not for my mom, who was an A student and just always did well. She did not realize that the incentivizing she used would not accord well with mom's personality.)

    I am thinking that certain members of our family just don't do well when there is this kind of pressure for a reward. At Josie's work, they can earn bonuses for various things, and instead of incentivizing Josie, it discourages her. Shades of school incentivizing that also worked against her.

  2. I enjoyed this post so much. It was a good way to learn more about you. I have a brother named David, too. :)

  3. By the way, how did your Andrew become such an expert on the Middle East? Why did it interest him so much? Do you have a post about that? And what does he/you hope to do when he grows up (er, finishes his doctorate)? Just curious especially since you've lived in such cool places (before now, I mean.) :) Sidenote: I have missionary friends in Ghana so that interests me about you all. I just need to read your blog from then one of these days....

  4. Captain E's class did timed drills for multiplication and they got ice cream toppings for each one they mastered. He got one topping. What can you do, he just does not respond well to timed test. Even though the test is over I still drill him in the car every once in awhile. "E what is 6x7" because the thing is I use multiplication every freaking hopefully he won't have to think about them so hard someday :) Spelling was my downfall. I was reading The Great Gatsby while everyone else was reading babysitters club, but I just couldn't spell at all. Still can't. I guess we can't learn everything in school.....and yes Statistics is Math, math that sort of makes sense...but in the same way that Physics math is like word maybe it doesn't make all that much sense :). My problem with going back to school at this point is I'd have to retake the GRE...I think they have a seven year limit on that thing and to be honest if I wanted to do anything with science probably all of my prerequisites again. Seriously stinks!

    1. PS, does a family of five still count as a small family :)

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  6. So, I did not realize the computer was signed in as Josie...and when you read what I wrote, Nancy, you can see that it would so not go with Josie's name!! :o)

    JosieApril 13, 2013 at 8:22 PM

    Ladies, just look for a master's program that doesn't require the GRE if you have high enough grades. I know they still exist. It worked for me! I have not had any math since Grade Ten, because when I was an undergrad, a foreign language completely replaced math. So, no brainer for me, I did French. Only had to take one class because of High School French. I am with two master's and a PhD all but done (only the formalities left) with no math skills at all. Because, hello, I don't need algebra or trigonometry to be a librarian or to teach world music, now do I? No, I do not.