Meaning Less

chalkboardHere is a guest post from one of the world’s greatest English teachers, and my bestie, Paige Hall Stanley:

2×1=2, 2×2=4, 2×3=6, 2×4=8. This was the new litany in Mrs. VanDyke’s second grade classroom in the spring. As a precocious child, I had thus far zipped through all of the academic offerings my teachers had proffered and easily mastered the realms of first and second grade science, English, history, and math. Until now. Multiplication tables were apparently to be my academic demise. The ones and twos were manageable enough–who can’t count by ones and twos–and the rhythm of the fives was also easy to grasp. Then, there were the six, seven, eight, and nines. These larger number facts loomed ominously on my small academic horizon. For the first time, I had to memorize information in numerical instead of word form, and my brain was not cooperating. Memorizing historical or scientific facts did not present a problem–words were words, regardless of discipline. Numbers, however, had a language all their own, and it was foreign to me.  

So, I made the second grade executive decision that I really had no practical use for being able to rattle off the higher multiplication tables. Would I ever have occasion to line up 6 rows x 7 rows of Barbie dolls to calculate how many total outfits I needed in order to have no Barbie in the buff? At the rate my dog regularly ate the limbs off my Barbies, that certainly would never be a pressing need, as my total number of anatomically in-tact Barbies rarely exceeded two. Was I going to group Oreos by fours in order to calculate how many total circles of chocolate delight I intended to eat? Since my mom hid all sweets and doled them out in a rather miserly fashion via my lunch box, multiplication certainly wasn’t doing me any good when I would happen to find the hidden stash. When that sweet event occurred, it was all about how many I could stuff in my mouth before being discovered. Obviously, I had no time to arrange them in a grid and calculate my total caloric theft.  

In my seven year old mind, the multiplication tables served no useful purpose and MEMORIZING them was a complete waste of time. So, I didn’t. While my classmates sweated away at home with flashcards to memorize their six, seven, eight, and nine times tables, I played with my Barbies and hunted through the cabinets for the Oreos.

When the graded paper packet went home every Friday for parents to review, I removed the multiplication quizzes with the failing grades. Then, after mom signed the top sheet, I put the errant quizzes back in the packet. All of the other papers looked great with smiley faces and stickers, so why trouble my parents with this silly multiplication nonsense? I was sure they would agree with me on this educational point. After all, mom always used a calculator to balance the checkbook, and I had yet to hear an adult incorporating the times tables in any conversation. “Did you hear about the family down the street? They’re moving to South Carolina next week! And since they only have 6 days left to pack with 8 working hours each day to box everything, I sure hope they’ll be able to get everything taken care of in 48 hours.” Nope.

My plan worked for several weeks, with just a few minor bumps. Mrs. VanDyke kept me at lunch one day to inquire about my difficulties on the math quizzes. Smiling my most beatific smile, I assured her I would try harder. That held me until the next failing quiz, at which point, Mrs. VanDyke had the very unexpected idea to call home. This had never entered my second grade brain as a possibility because in my brief academic career, a teacher had never called my home before. This was, of course, back in the day when teachers only called home because little Suzy was wreaking havoc in the classroom. A havoc wreaker I certainly was not. I was simply taking a stand against meaningless multiplication.

Needless to say, I had to memorize all of the times tables and pass a test at the end of the summer to demonstrate my compliance with the educational system’s belief that multiplication does indeed matter. While my friends enjoyed summer break, I sweated it out with flashcards and 6×7=42, 6×8=48, 6×9=54 became my summer litany, so I could join my friends in third grade come September.

Looking back on this as an adult, of course, I now understand why it’s important to memorize the multiplication tables. In a larger context, though, I can see more value in my second grade epiphany that some parts of school may be nothing more than a means to an end. A decade or so later, Geometry and Calculus offered the same mathematical challenges as multiplication tables, and I had to remember that while I may not see the value in proving theorems that had already been proven by people far wiser in the wisdom of mathematics than me or the necessity of graphing parabolas, math credits were a grim necessity. This second grade experience set me up for subsequent encounters with Aristotle’s bitter roots of education and their unpleasant tartness; however, I learned to choke them down in order to savor the sweetness of graduation.

After two decades as a high school English teacher, I now find that I am fed a regular diet of bitter roots, albeit in the disguised form of educational politics. My 46 year old self has yet to find the value in an educational system transformed into an assembly line model of scripted teaching and testing, the constant vilification of teachers, the de-professionalization of teaching, and the leadership comprised of those with minimum teaching experience who have become commuters on the educational bandwagon du jour.

So, for now, I channel my second grade self, remove from the Friday paper packet the components that are not worthy of my time, and keep my administration at bay with a beatific smile.

2 thoughts on “Meaning Less

  1. Dear Guest Poster: Would you have learned you multiplication tables if your teacher would have used some different methods that would have been a better fit with the wiring of your brain or learning style? Is there one best way to teach? Is there one best way to learn? Rediscover the joy of the profession and the reasons you decided to make it career. Best wishes as you move closer to forty years of teaching.

  2. Dear Little Jimmy: I will be happy to send you one of the myriad reading strategies that English teachers routinely use in the classroom to provide scaffolding for those students who struggle with summarizing skills and finding the main point of a text comprised of more than one paragraph. Please refocus your efforts on the last three paragraphs–one could accurately make the inference that the only reason the writer comes back every late August is because, against all odds, she HAS managed to retain the joy that comes with being in the classroom with the students. Also, I don’t see any evidence to suggest that she believes there is one best way to teach or learn. Instead, her frustrations reside solely with the adults in her profession–leaders and colleagues–who doubt the ability of teachers to make decisions in the classroom which are in the best interests of their students. She certainly shakes her head at those who aid in the denigration of teachers by posting one news article after another that spotlight teachers who have committed illegal and immoral actions with their students. In closing, her theme for this school year equally applies here: “Be a voice, not an echo.”

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