My older daughter came home from school in a horrible mood today and it took me while to get the reason for it out of her. It was the Kangaroo Test. For the uninitiated, this is one of the many standardized tests that students of this country are given in school - although this one is couched as a Math Competition. Right. A competition in which the contestants (including the eventual losers) are forced to take part . . . I remembered how this same daughter had come home in tears a year earlier, after the results of the last Kangaroo Test were announced. They had been hung up on the wall of her classroom so that everyone could see her name very near the bottom, the lowest score. What a great idea! Let’s top off our kids sense of failure and incompetence with a little public shaming! Who thought this all would be a good idea and why?
My daughter is not the most logical thinker which means Math is her toughest subject. Everywhere else she gets by well, thanks to her wonderful social skills and her phenomenal memory. I noticed years ago that she only needs to hear a song twice to know all the lyrics by heart. At school, she uses that talent to stuff loads of information into her short term memory without really understanding it. She proceeds to spit it all out on the test and then promptly forgets it. This strategy has kept her on the honor roll for 7 years, for whatever that is worth.
Once again I am even more convinced that my little school is on the right and better track – no tests, no grades, no rewards for good work, even very little praise (although I find that last one a bit difficult to abide by).
Three years ago it just so happened that my daughter was learning about Ancient Egypt at the same time I was teaching the subject in my school. We did it as a part of a longer project on early high cultures that included not only learning facts, but things like designing togas and making papyrus, cooking Egyptian style, building miniature pyramids and painting hieroglyphs, mummifying one lucky student in toilet paper and acting out stories from mythology. We plastered an entire wall with huge timelines and then plastered these with pictures and homemade information posters.
On one evening during all of this, I heard my husband quizzing my daughter in preparation for her history test the next day. She spat out one fact after another: the years some obscure pharaoh ruled, the number of stones in a pyramid, lists of Egyptian agricultural products, geographic features and place names . . . it went on and on. I got a bit unnerved and thought “Geez, my school kids dont know half of this information!”
One year later, my younger daughter began to learn about Egypt and I said to her ”You can ask Mitzi - she did all of this last year.” Mitzi looked at me strangely and asked ”What are you talking about? We never learned about Egypt.” A short time after that, I handed out a fun worksheet to my own students and they immediately said ”We did this one already.”
“Really? When?” I asked.
“Last year - during the Egypt project.”
“Oh. I forgot about that. Well . . . do you want to do it again?”
“Okay. Well . . . then . . . lets do something else . . . ” And we did.
I can hardly imagine how my students would react (not to mention their parents!) if I came to class one day and said “Hey kids guess what? Today we are going to take a 75 minute Math test and next week I will tell you all who the winners and who the losers are. Doesn’t that sound like fun?”
The thing is, though, . . . Math is fun! I loved Math as a kid. It was all puzzles and riddles and patterns. I remember learning the multiplication table and discovering the beautiful pattern of the 9 row. All of the products - 18, 27, 36, 45, 54, 63, 72, 81 - consisted of two digits and when you added the two digits together, they equaled 9 (1+8=9, 2+7=9, 3+6=9, . . .). That set me off on a search for the hidden patterns of the other rows. I was about 8 or 9 years old and I spent hours staring at that multiplication table trying to discover what I knew was there. I finally gave up and decided to ask for help.
The next lesson, I excitedly went to my teacher and asked about the patterns.
“Patterns? What are you talking about?”
“I mean like the 5 row that always ends in 5 or 0, or the 9 row where all the numbers equal 9 when you add them up.”
“What do you mean they equal 9?”
So I showed her what I meant. She looked surprised and asked,
“Who taught you this?”
I answered no one. I had just seen it.
”That can’t be true. Someone must have shown you this!”
I can still remember how angry and offended I was. And what is worse, I gave up looking for those patterns.
Over forty years later, I was attending the third day of an “Introduction to the Montessori Method” seminar. So far it had been interesting, if not convincing. Over the span of those three days, I had tried with varying success to suspend skepticism and keep an open mind. The last session I attended was a Math demonstration and I went into it unenthusiastically, knowing I would never be teaching Math in my school.
The seminar leader demonstrated one of the many Montessori materials for learning Math. It involved beads or strings of beads in different lengths and colors and she used a logical system to lay them out in a line, representing the 7 row of the multiplication table. And there it was - a repeating color pattern. I stared at it with the wonder of an 8 year old. I asked her if every row resulted in a pattern of colors and she answered yes.
I was floored. There it was. Something I had been looking for since my early childhood. And it was beautiful.