Letting Life Lead
I teach adults and for a time I tutored high school students. It breaks my heart when I get students so beaten down and anxious that they’ve convinced themselves they are the dumbest person on campus. Every now and then someone will ask me how I feel about The Common Core Standards or I will see one of those annoying common core memes and go off. I have two answers depending on what you mean by common core.
If you are referring to the shackles on teachers placed there by “them” in an attempt to fix a broken system by telling teachers how to teach, how much to teach, and how to teach for a test that does little more than to give children ulcers, then I have no hesitation in agreeing that someone really screwed the pooch. Maybe we should go to our mechanic and tell him how to fix the engine and what tools to use when we don’t know squat about it, then tell him we’ll test him later on his performance.
If you ask me about common core skills, then we can have a different conversation. The basic skills contained within common core don’t just address a set of rules to follow, they tap into the natural way human beings approach mathematics. It uses things like pattern recognition and strategy to tap into verbal, visual, tactile, and auditory learning styles. Four isn’t just three lines you scribble on paper (4); it’s a pattern. The word four has four letters and it is an even number and it’s a double two and it’s half of eight and quadrupeds have for legs and a quartet is four people. You don’t just memorize a bunch of times tables, you sing it and explore it. Adding doesn’t have to be, “Do it this way.” Instead, it can be how else can we add 3 things and 4 things? Can we change it to 2 and 5? Why can we do that? When you add an even number to an odd number do you always get an odd answer?
This is how we learn about our world. American culture has this idea that math skills are special rather than an innate set of skills. I had a student with discalculia who could do math; he just had to do it very differently and work harder than the majority of people. So unless you have this condition, you can do math just fine like everyone else. You just need to find a way that speaks to you and draws upon your strengths and interests.
I introduce my adult learners to common core skills like “counting-up” especially when they struggle with borrowing or carrying numbers. Sure, we can subtract 1999 from 2000 and borrow like crazy for shits and giggles. But why? Just add 1 to 1999 and you have your answer. We don’t add numbers in our head backwards like we do on paper. If your friends owed you money and you ended up with $20.40 , $3.60, and $10.25, would you line up the decimal points and start adding left to right? Hell no. You do what any sane person would do! Add 20 + 3 + 10 to get 33. You know that .60 plus .40 is a buck to bring you up to 34 and then you tack on the quarter. Thirty-four dollars and twenty-five cents. People do this kind of thing every day. Did you know you can subtract a number like 5456 – 3899 without borrowing! I know, it blew my mind too. I like to show this skill off to my basic mathematics students. It gets their attention and injects them with excitement, and damn I get excited too! The response is usually, “Wait? What did you just do! Do that again!” That’s a heck of a lot better than the usual cricket chorus.
You don’t need to have a special math affinity to do these things. I don’t. I have to work hard at math because it is letters not numbers that sing to me. Yet, I can still calculate percent in my head just by knowing how to move the decimal point one place to the left for 10%. It requires no effort. I round up to make numbers easier to calculate (I like it when they end in zero, or five, or match) and subtract off things I’ve added in to make it right again when I’m done. I’m okay with a rough estimate. Unlike people building bridges and 0-rings, it’s not important to be precise all the time in daily life. But if you don’t understand numbers and how you can manipulate them, it makes it hard to build confidence and do a simple calculation or to even help your kids with their homework.
I love watching my five year old make math connections with her abacus, or a game, or just playing around with ten-frames and patterns. “Hey, mom! Two sets of four is eight! Eight is an even number because you can make two equal sets. If you make four sets of four that’s sixteen! ” Kids can do multiplication and they don’t even realize it. Really, though, I think her brain is bigger than mine.
Here is my advice to you who wonder about common core. Support the teachers not the standardized tests. Support them when your kid comes home with that weird looking paper; don’t shun it. I know all the paper pushing is a pain and it can be scary, but there is gold in there! This isn’t “new math” vs “old math” — it’s all math and it’s all good and you don’t even have to like it.
Math and I aren’t really friends, but we have come to an agreement that just adds up.
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Author of suspense novels Search For Maylee, Aggravated Momentum, The Stix, and New Age Lamians. As well as the short story collection Time Wasters and (co-author of) The Suspenseful Collection. Columnist for The Conscious Talk Magazine.
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