--2 Mother Tongue: Alone Together
Sept. 25, 2017

Mother Tongue: Alone Together

Of math, maddening and making connections

October 20, 2014, 1:30 pm
By Lauren Whitehurst

I. Alone

My stomach turned in my son’s first-grade classroom last week. Theo and his classmates sat at their tables each facing a worksheet of addition problems. The teacher asked for pencils in the air—my traumatic-memory trigger—and then started her timer for one minute. I felt a cold sweat begin. 

The “Mad Minute”—a one-page test of 40 to 60 addition/subtraction/multiplication/division problems to be completed in one minute—was the bane of my early elementary years. When I think of stomach-pit stress, I remember timed math tests. I feared and hated them; I didn’t do well on them; my failure felt like divine judgment on my very soul. The damning din of my math-whiz classmates flipping over their completed tests and slamming No. 2s on their desktops is a sound lodged deep in the “I suck” section of my psyche.

Theo’s teacher casually asked how I’d describe their “Rocket Math” procedure to other parents, and I couldn’t speak. My panicked eyes scanned the class looking for suffering first-graders. Impossibly, they all appeared to be okay. I’m not ruling out silent scarring, but no one seemed visibly tearful, as I often was.

Rocket Math is an improvement on the Mad Minute. Students spend one minute quietly voicing the math facts printed around the edge of each worksheet at their own paces. When the second minute starts, they tackle the worksheet’s equation grid with their pencils.

I stood still and held my breath for the entire class during this minute. No one triumphantly slammed a pencil down, though, and no one hunched in red-faced despair. Each child simply recorded the number of completed problems next to his or her personal goal, set earlier. Their performances are measured against individualized targets instead of each other’s mad speed-math skills.

This tweak doesn’t make me love timed math tests, but it makes them feel less psychologically damaging: Tracking individual progress seems to better support realistic achievement given the range of abilities and histories present in first grade. It also seems less likely to drive students away from STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) opportunities at all costs for the rest of their lives.

Educators find timed tests helpful in assessing kids’ rapid recall, or automaticity, of basic math facts, such as simple addition, with which students must be fluent in order to do higher order math. There’s plenty of evidence that skill drills help kids learn everything from subtraction to soccer. And it’s no secret that American students aren’t waving the flag of high global math achievement.

The latest Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings place US students below average in math skills among 65 developed countries. Math scores from Shanghai are "the equivalent of over two years of formal schooling ahead of those observed in Massachusetts," notes the study. In Massachusetts, the highest-performing US state, 51 percent of students are proficient in math. New Mexico’s math proficiency is listed below 20 percent, somewhere between Alabama and Serbia (with which we may share more comparable economic profiles, truth be told).

The New Mexico Public Education Department found that 36 percent of Santa Fe Public Schools students were proficient in math last year. Since SFPS has not exactly led the state in public education, I’m going to guess that New Mexico’s standards for gauging proficiency are different than PISA’s. Still, it’s clear that we—in Santa Fe, in New Mexico, in the nation—need to attend to our numbers.

If Rocket Math can help do that without causing long-term psychological damage and obliterating students’ confidence levels in math, then, maybe, this is a strong tool. Individualized goals and differentiated instruction seem promising in building math skills among developmentally diverse early graders.

For what it’s worth, a Rocket Math-cited case study attributes an “at-risk” elementary student’s greatly accelerated math skills to the practice of Rocket Math. Perhaps that research team would like to sample the statistically significant pool of SFPS’ at-risk students.

There is a critical distinction between testing and teaching, however.  While timed tests may be appropriate measurements of a child’s mastery of math facts—and actually fun for kids who have mastered or near-mastered them—they are not appropriate methods of teaching the strategies for mastery.

I’m encouraged that a supporting study put forth by Rocket Math mentions this distinction. I’m very grateful that Theo’s first-grade experience includes more nuanced teaching. I need this hope to balance my skepticism. With it, I can follow Theo’s math work more cheerfully. Maybe, despite my Mad Minute scarring, he and I will find that math can be very cool indeed.

II. Together

Balancing the benefits of differentiated math-fact assessment is the link between academic engagement and the educational value of the classroom community.

A friend who reluctantly enrolled her son in public school visited his first-grade classroom recently. She pined for his previous Waldorf school and was hoping her class visit would make her feel better about her son’s SFPS education. It made her feel worse.

“There was no heart. There was no acknowledgement of who these kids are individually and what gifts they’re bringing to the class,” she told me. “They’re separated into rows and there’s nothing—nothing—about relating to each other. I don’t think the teacher even cares who they are.”

This is one of the demoralizing images of public education, especially for many parents I know who have experienced alternative educational approaches and magical preschools. It was the first thing Seth Biderman, an education writer and former SFPS teacher, called out in anticipatory, and as it turned out controversial, justification for sending his daughter to private school.

With my daughter in her last year of one of these magical preschools, I am acutely aware of the “heart” factor’s influence on early-school experiences—and I don’t think it should end there. There’s much to be gained academically by cultivating community and compassion, working with students as individuals and incorporating material that is relevant to kids’ lives.

These ideals aren’t popularized in public schools’ standardized, test-driven, quantification-based curricula and evaluation systems. Even so, heart, community and relevancy-based learning are indeed present in Santa Fe Public Schools classrooms. Whether Theo’s first two public school years are the exception or the rule, he has benefited from great helpings of heart and creativity.

Theo’s kindergarten and first-grade teachers—across two SFPS schools—bend over backward to cultivate both a strong sense of classroom community and individual celebration. Yes, there are a lot of worksheets. Still, both teachers frequently depart from and/or augment and/or theme them with lessons that incorporate kids’ environments, particular interests, storytelling, music, play, movement and fun. They bring incredible heart to their students’ learning experiences—and their students do well.

Theo’s first-grade class spotlights one Star Student each week. On Monday, the Star Student brings in pictures, answers questions and shares a special item with the class to help everyone to get to know him or her better. On Tuesday, the teacher or the Star reads a favorite book to the class. On Wednesday, a parent-written letter shares special attributes, funny stories and interesting things about the child. Relatives are invited to Thursday lunch with their Star. And on Friday, every student draws a picture and writes five sentences about what they like and what they learned about the Star Student.

The activity teaches listening, speaking, reading, writing, information retention and presentation skills. It gives each child center stage and occasion to share his or her interests. It directly involves parents and caregivers in multiple ways. It models organizational and writing composition skills and invites artistic expression. It encourages personal connections among individual students and the class as a whole. It creates opportunities for students, teachers and parents to engage with each other as individuals in linked communities.

When I told Theo’s teacher about my conversation with my demoralized friend, she nodded. “This is the only school out of the three I’ve taught in that would let me do this,” she said.

This is maddening. This is what engaged parents are reacting against and applying to the enterprise of public education as a whole and to SFPS locally.

SFPS administrators are grappling with issues ranging from student achievement to bullying to poverty to low parent involvement—why aren’t more of them championing teaching plans that address community, compassion and engaged group learning? Why would they actively shut down such plans?

In all the data-driven educational reform fueling curriculum mandates, why aren’t our educational leaders citing—or recognizing—research that supports integrated, applied learning? The research is there—and it’s linked to positive student outcomes.

An article in the National Association for the Education of Young Children publication Young Children cites five reputable studies behind these conclusions: “As important as engagement is for children’s success as learners, strategies for promoting engagement are not…present in the vast majority of school settings. Instruction that promotes passivity, rote learning, and routine tends to be the rule,.”

Further, it concludes that “because children with low levels of engagement are at risk for disruptive behavior, absenteeism, and eventually dropping out of school, the need to increase engagement is critical to children’s success.”

A literature review by the Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement sets forth ideas for teachers to help cultivate student engagement and quotes the finding that “drawing connections between information taught and real life…is highly effective in engaging students in the lesson.”

While I’m tempted to just say “duh!” here, the authors sensibly recommend interactive, relevant lessons and instructional strategies that emphasize collaborative and experiential learning can increase student engagement.

Some of these strategies:

  • group activities and assignment
  • long-term projects
  • lessons and activities that draw from students’ backgrounds, interests and academic needs

This sounds like the Star Student activity! Yet Theo’s teacher had to go through three SFPS schools before finding one that would allow her to implement it. And from what I hear from other parents, administrative and instructional creativity in effecting this kind of research-based practice is painfully rare.

Please, dear readers, prove me wrong! Share your experiences!

In the meantime, let’s remember we’re in this together. According to Stanford professor Penelope Eckert and others, “Engagement is not just the involvement of the sole individual in learning; rather, learning is the vehicle for the individual’s engagement with a community and with society at large.” I suppose this is even true for those masters of math-fact automaticity, at some point.

Regardless of our school preferences or opportunities—or whether we have school-age children at all—the fact that only 47 percent of our district’s students are proficient readers (and far fewer in math) is appalling and relevant. We should be cheering—and following—the initiative of the SFPS teachers and administrators who seek to remedy this statistic by cultivating communities of engaged learners now and for the future.



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