Friday, March 26, 2010

Multiplication Rocks

I was good at math in grade school. Adding and multiplying came easily, and I especially loved long division – estimating, subtracting, estimating again, the longer the better. I still take pleasure doing math by hand, in adding the figures on the deposit slip or calculating the tip.

But as with so many skills I take for granted, I have no idea how I learned this. I remember vividly the moment in the park when my father pushed me on my black two-wheeler, newly freed from training wheels, and I kept going. Math memories are far murkier – blurry images of worksheets and practice quizzes. I have lots of little tricks for playing with numbers in my head, but I can't say where they came from.

Working with Parker has been no help, as math seems to have changed since I learned it. Shades of déjà vu! I grew up hearing people fuss about "new math," and now it's new again!

According to Parker's second grade teacher, the way I learned to add and subtract is called "the algorithm," and the U.S. stood alone in learning this clunky, error-prone method. She showed me some of her teaching aids, which suggest that after students have mastered the new, improved methods, a teacher might wish to introduce this "algorithm," with its outdated concepts of "carrying" and "borrowing" (students now "share" and "regroup") as a kind of historical artifact, a quaint relic of the past that their parents might find familiar, but which they would never want to use.

I tried my best to understand how my son was getting to his answers, but it never quite made sense. I now remark to friends that I always knew a time would come when I couldn't help Parker with his math, but I never expected it to be in second grade.

Still the "old" – or perhaps I should say the "old new" – ways still have their uses. Third grade remains the year of multiplying, at least in North Carolina. As Parker's class launched into the task, he brought home several ways to make those old, familiar tables stick in his mind (3 x 5, thankfully, does still equal 15). He punched and kicked his way through them, arranged objects, listened to a rap-style CD. But none of it quite seemed to work.

Then I had one of those rare moments of parental inspiration. Schoolhouse Rock! I spent my third grade Saturdays in front of the TV (another tradition carried away on the winds of technology), when cartoon action was punctuated with three-minute educational "moments" offering useful facts: "Three Is a Magic Number," "Figure Eight Is Double Four," "A Noun Is a Person, Place or Thing. "

So we headed to youtube, where all those old clips now reside. Parker loved them. And as we watched, I began to recognize the strategies I use when I multiply. Maybe, I began to think, I didn't learn math in school at all. Maybe it was all TV! In gratitude, I sprang for the CD.

Parker had a fever yesterday, and stayed home from school. His teacher had sent home a multiplication practice sheet . He worked on it in bed, steadily filling in the answers, singing snatches of the different songs as he worked. He only got one wrong. I feel my confidence rising. Division, here we come!

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