Fourth Graders! Today we will begin our Adventures with Long Division! With a swish of her skirts and a scratch of taffeta on nylons, Miss Cambridge pivots on her sturdy lace-up shoes and fills the board with an avalanche of marks.
Then you bring this number down…like so! She waves her chalk in the air and aims it at the numbers. And then you add this…She piles numbers on top of numbers…to this!! But! Carefully. Carefully. Watch the digits. Always watch the digits! She stands aside.
My eyes glaze over at the array of numbers, arrows, little x’s, and slash marks.
Patricia, come to the board!
Just then the lunch bell shrills. We’ll have Patricia show us how to do long division when we get back. Class dismissed.
(We walked home for lunch back in the day. Thank God.)
I’m dead. I moan to my mother as I came through the kitchen door. We started long division today.
Relax. She smooths a sheet of newsprint on the table. I’ll show you a trick.
Remember this phrase: Dad makes scrumptious brownies. She writes Dad. Makes. Scrumptious. Brownies. Then she underlines the first letter of each word. These first letters remind you what to do in what order. D for Divide. M for Multiply. S for subtract, and B for bring down. Watch.
Camels are the main mode of transportation in the desert. They get very thirsty. So, at the oasis…Mom draws a little pool of water surrounded by palm trees and camels…a camel drinks twenty-six gallons of water in ten minutes, how many gallons can it drink in one minute? This is important for a camel driver to know, says Mom, just in case he needs to jump on his camel after only a minute of drinking. She pauses. So: Dad makes scrumptious brownies. Divide. Multiply. Subtract. Bring down. 2.6 gallons.
She hands me the pencil. Here. You do one.
I’ve got it.
Back at school Miss Cambridge writes a problem on the board. A caravan of six camels is carrying 348 pounds of exotic rice to Egypt. The rice has been divided equally. Each camel carries the same amount of rice. What size is each camel’s load? She hands me the chalk.
I write out 348 divided by 6 and think Dad and divide 34 into 6, Makes and multiply 5 times 6, scrumptious and subtract 30 from 36; brownies and bring down the 8. I stare at the 48, picture the words Dad Makes Scruumptious Brownies, and start the process again.
Miss Cambridge looks very pleased with herself.**
* This will ruin us is something I would hear back in 1985 when the CT Mastery Test was implemented. (Yes, the very same test which has a halo around it now.)
**THEREFORE, WE NEED SOMETHING LIKE THE COMMON CORE; IT–AND THE ASSESSMENTS THAT MESH WITH IT–HELPS US KNOW IF OUR TEACHING HAS SUNK IN. Miss Cambridge taught–or thought she taught–all 7 of us over the years. Seven kids learned long division in exactly this manner!! Or didn’t learn it, actually.
Just because teachers teach something is no guarantee that students have learned it. Or continue to know it the next week. Students learn tons, but as to whether they’re learning what the teacher’s teaching requires the instructional booster shot called teaching for transfer. And it isn’t fancy stuff. Rather, it’s a constant over-seeing, an attention to the degree to which the student is taking the responsibility for doing whatever it is on her own. Doing it without cueing by the teacher and constant prompting. And then a re-teaching when it’s deemed that the kid didn’t get it.
Magical thinking is the assumption that there’s an immediate causal relationship between any one lesson and the learning of the lesson. Students in affluent districts have parental back-up plans in place to shore up the “Miss Cambridge” line of thought. This keeps the teacher from recognizing the inefficacy of his instruction. (The teacher spouting off in the YMCA for all of us to listen to and get a bad impression of the teaching field, the one who said that the Common Core was ruining her school district, comes from such a district.) In less affluent districts, poverty and ethnicity gets factored into the magical thinking and is used to account for the fact that the great teaching is not taking. Another story. CAVEAT: I AM NOT ANTI-TEACHER. I have written a series of stories about high-performing, high-poverty schools that DO NOT engage in this spurious line of logic. See earlier entries in WWWW.
(For another iteration of the Miss Cambridge story: Lately I’ve been focusing on isabeltellsherstories.com in order to revise my novel, and get it ready for, um, whatever it will be ready for. After the YMCA diatribe I came home and suddenly found Isabel telling the story of how she learned long division. It was a version of my Miss Cambridge experience. I love how writing works. Isabel decided to have this entry, not me. I was merely taking dictation. (Is the Isabel story true, you ask. No, I’d answer, but it all happened.) You’ll find the Isabel Scheherazade at http://www.isabeltellsherstories.com. Make sure to scroll back and use the calendar and the back arrow to get to the beginning. :)