“Sagging Up” in Math Class

I had been attracted to my first teaching assignment in 1965 by the school district’s “individualized approach” to reading instruction. However, much to my chagrin, I found out in July that I would be teaching math instead.

So I spent the next month studying the “new math” Encyclopedia Britannica Math Workshop program. As no one had given me the Teacher’s Guides for the texts, and as I was too naïve to ask for them, I struggled on my own through the 4th, 5th and 6th grade books, trying to make sense of this brilliant non-traditional program. EB Math Workshop teaches arithmetic and mathematical thinking inductively using a bare minimum of words. No instructions, no examples, only number patterns, and the like, to puzzle out independently.

By the end of August, I felt that I had a clearer understanding of some of the language of mathematics (until then my least favorite subject). Convinced that I was prepared to teach EB Math Workshop, I was eager to begin with my new pupils.

At 10:00 a.m. on the first day of school in September, we regrouped for math class. My group of 5th graders sauntered into my classroom with an air of pessimism and an attitude of “try and make me learn.” I thought to myself, “Oh God, how will I ever help these kids?”

These children had been grouped by math achievement levels and I had volunteered to teach the 5th and 6th grade “low” groups. The ten or so kids in each class hated math, hated school, and were humiliated by having been assigned to group “C” (everyone knew what group “C” really stood for). In fact, all of these kids did have something in common: they had all gotten lost somewhere along the way in the process of learning basic arithmetic, and had given up on the possibility of ever learning any—5th and 6th grade math “drop-outs.”

So, I introduced myself. Everyone was on his or her best first-day-of-school behavior and dressed in new school clothes. I told them I needed to ask them some questions.

As I listened to their math sagas, their defeatist feelings became strikingly clear. This teacher did this, and that teacher did that, and on and on and on. They had become completely confused by the new “new math” program in the school district. (Unbeknownst to them, some of the teachers were also confused by the “new math.”) Furthermore, they felt neglected in classes moving at a pace they couldn’t handle.

I reassured them that their teachers did recognize how discouraged they were. And for that very reason, all the other teachers at their grade level had agreed to teach larger classes, so they could get extra help in a class of ten. Signs of relief showed on a few faces and they began to perk up.

After listening carefully to my new students and mulling it over, I decided to do something that the powers-that-be would view dimly. I completely ignored the “new math” texts and started searching in the school’s storage closets for useable “old arithmetic” texts. I found plenty!

The next day I brought to class ten each of the second, third, and 4th grade arithmetic texts, which the kids immediately told me they had “already done.” I told them we were going to do them again. But, this time they were going to understand what they “did.” They smiled back as if they were thinking, “Why didn’t anyone think of that before?”

Moreover, I told them that each and every one of them was going to move through the texts at his or her own pace, and that my job was to explain anything they didn’t understand and to check each one’s progress daily.
However, I had one new class rule. And this was the clincher for which I am indebted to my sense of simplicity and “sagging up.” HOMEWORK WAS FORBIDDEN!

They had been assigned math homework every night since 2nd grade and obviously it hadn’t helped them. We were going to study math at school only. Even though practicing multiplication tables and doing rows and rows of “gozintas” had been a time-honored tradition, we were going against a tradition that hadn’t worked—for them.

They left the classroom surprised and shocked! Who was this crazy man teacher anyway?

Math classes began to fly by. We studied the texts and played math games of all sorts—relay races to solve computation examples on the chalkboard were the unanimous favorite. The children were beginning to see for themselves that they were progressing and had begun to take pride in their work. They were happy, I was happy, their parents were happy, the principal was happy and even the knowledgeable down-to-earth school district Coordinator of Math appeared pleased when she entered the classroom. (I think she pretended that she didn’t see the verboten traditional texts and, furthermore, the kids had covered them with jazzy jackets—possibly to hide them from their more advanced peers.)

A most unexpected turn of events occurred sometime during the second month of school. One of the children asked me—no, more correctly, begged me—if he could please take the arithmetic book home and do homework.

Immediately I said “no.” Rules are rules. All the others jumped in and pleaded to be able to do homework. Finally I relented—on one condition. They could take homework home only if they worked hard in class on that particular day. They reassured me that this would be no problem (which it never became) and that they would not start fooling around and performing outlandish antics as they had done in previous years.

A teacher’s dream come true—kids begging to do homework, to learn more!

The year ended with all but two of the children moving ahead a minimum of a year and a half in arithmetic skills and understanding. The two exceptions were children who were identified in the spring of the year as having particular learning problems requiring specialized teaching techniques and modified expectations.

As we parted at the end of the school year, the looks on their faces and their body language were evidence that they felt differently as learners and had more confidence in themselves in general. And, of course, they had a better grasp of one of the three “R”s.

Peggy, one of my former 5th grade students, made a point of visiting me every few years and updating me on her life. Eighteen years later, when I left the school district, she stopped into my farewell party to wish me luck and to remind me again about our 5th grade math class. She had just recently entered her chosen field of nursing and was filled with pride. So was I.

Excerpted from:
Teaching as an Act of Love: Thoughts and Recollections
of a Former Teacher, Principal and Kid  © 2007 Richard Lakin