Your Grandmother Should Know

Gail Westbrook Issue: Section:

I just spent a year in the Foster Grandparent program, in a 4th grade classroom at my local public elementary school (Grandma Gail to my kids, of whom I became exceedingly fond). It’s a wonderful program, paying a stipend of $2.26 an hour, plus gas money. To qualify you must be low-income, pass a physical exam, and supply a police check. There is also a modest training required, for which you are paid. In my community, the vast majority of volunteers are Hispanic (I was the token Anglo), in their 70’s (a couple of us were in our 60’s and a couple of the grandmas may have been in their 80’s), female (I think there was one grandpa), and either divorced or widowed (but a couple of us had husbands still in the home). The stipend adds up and is definitely a much appreciated addition to social security. But most of the women I talked to did it for love. It addressed their need to get out of the house and be useful, a need not fully met by church and family, despite the fact that many of the women were actively involved with both. Some women become so attached to the program that they have to be gently forced to ”retire” when it is no longer safe for them to be in an active classroom, or when they are sleeping most of the day. One teacher, however, used her students’ affection for their grandma to make the snoring work for her. Her behavior management approach became: “Shh, you’ll wake up grandma.”

But I’m here to pose some questions about the academic environment, questions that I have been mulling over for a year. Why couldn’t many of my 4th graders add, subtract, multiply or, god forbid, divide, with any ease. And why could they comprehend so little of what they read? I was in what is called an Inclusion classroom but I am not talking about the children who were pulled out of regular classes, often during the very subjects they would have found the most interesting, to receive special attention to their reading, writing and arithmetic skills. I’m talking about the “regular’ students, of whom I would estimate that at least a third were adding and subtracting on their fingers, less than half knew their multiplication tables and less than half could understand what they read.

Let’s take math first, since I happen to love math. I understand that we live in a world with hand-held calculators but these children were not allowed to use calculators in the classroom or on the standardized tests they were given in the spring. They also had no comprehension of what a reasonable answer should be, in case they punched in the wrong number on their calculators as adults. They really didn’t comprehend why the answer to a 3 digit number divided by a 2 digit number couldn’t possibly be a 4 digit number. They also couldn’t transpose an operation. They might finally figure out that 12 divided by 3 equals 4, after elaborate flexing of fingers, but couldn’t see that therefore 3 times 4 equals 12, or vice versa. And they had obviously never been required to memorize the multiplication tables, though they knew a trick for how to calculate the 9s table on their fingers. I thought their teacher did quite a good job of presenting each day’s math lesson, but try long division when you can’t multiply or subtract, try multiplication by 2 digit numbers when you can’t add, let alone remember the multiplication tables. Are we going wrong in the third grade, where children traditionally learn their multiplication tables, or in the first and second, where they learn to add and subtract? I’m open to new ways of presenting mathematical concepts, and would like to learn more about them. But I can’t help thinking that my kids needed the basics as well. I felt like crying when a student I was trying to help struggled to figure out 9 minus 8 on his fingers. There is something wrong here and I hope someone can help me understand why and how we’ve gone so wrong. I have been asked to teach an adult math literacy class next year, for students hoping to go on to the GED preparation math class, and for those who just want to be able to figure out if they have enough money for their groceries before they get to the check-out line. I am planning to use many different approaches, including lots of manipulatives and real life situations. But I am also going to drill them until they know 2 plus 2 equals 4, without having to use their fingers or count beans in their heads. And we are going to memorize our multiplication tables, no matter what. We will learn them tossing a ball, sitting under a desk, standing on our heads if need be, I will drill, bribe, reward, compete, anything it takes. Because nothing has yet convinced me that we can or should do away with being able to perform basic mathematical computations in our heads
My 4th graders were also lost when given a mathematical word problem, as you might imagine, and this leads into reading for comprehension, or the lack thereof. When I first realized that at least half of my children did not understand what they read, I thought “It’s the fault of phonics. They have been so busy learning how to sound out the words they’ve forgotten to pay attention to what the words mean.” I still think there may be something to this, but I’m open to other possibilities. Someone suggested that young people today have a hard time comprehending what they read because they can’t visualize, and you have to be able to visualize to comprehend. She said they’ve always had the visuals supplied, via TV, video games, computer games. Another thought I had, nodding off during the reading aloud of one of the selections in their standardized reading curriculum, is that the readings are so god awful boring even I was having a hard time paying enough attention to comprehend. The problem with this theory is that my generation wasn’t particularly interested in what Dick and Jane were up to either, let alone Spot and Puff. But we could understand what they were up to. I met someone who is doing his PHD thesis on how to teach children to read for comprehension and he said he could recommend books on the subject. I will take up his offer, and perhaps find some answers there. .But I keep coming back to the question of why and how we have separated the idea of reading from the idea of comprehension. Again, no one my age that I know had to be taught how to comprehend that Dick and Jane were running. As soon as we could read the word “run” we understood what they were doing. Where and how have we gone wrong?

And last but not least, I have to mention writing. I was once again dumbfounded at the writing many of my children produced on their weekly essay quizes based on the above-mentioned readings. Their writing tended to be gibberish. When I read their answers back to them, we’d both burst out laughing. They could hear that it was gibberish. Then I’d ask them to tell me the answer to the test question. If they were even close to a correct answer I’d say “Yes, you’re on the right track. Write down exactly what you just told me, word for word.’’ Why had they not learned to correlate speaking with writing? Could they just not be bothered to put down all the words, in order? Was it too much trouble? I certainly tried to point out that it takes a lot less effort to write a passing answer the first time than to have to re-do, over and over, until the teacher finally gives up and passes a slight improvement on the original answer. I don’t mean to denigrate my children, whom I found to be incredibly brave, funny, fun and occasionally profound. I just want to learn how to be of more help to them. One day, when we were having a problem with a wasp in the classroom, children shrieking and running from one side of the room to the other, a girl sitting near me, one of a few real readers in the classroom, looked up from her book, announced “The world is full of wasps,” and went back to her book. Talk about wisdom.

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