Reading & Writing & ‘Rithmetic

As I type, my darling children are using an app called Reflex Math. They are also whining. A lot. Reflex Math is designed to help them learn math facts through the 10s. First addition & subtraction, then multiplication & division. It looks like fun to me: instead of just practicing facts with flashcards, they choose games to play, earn points for playing, and “buy” things from the online store. They can check their progress to see which facts they’ve mastered and they only need to play about 10 minutes a day to progress well. So… choice? Check. Rewards? Check. Autonomy? Check.

They hate it.

Me? I’m conflicted. I hated hated hated learning my facts when I was in elementary school. I failed one timed test after another and eventually decided that I was no good at math. I was wrong, but it took me years to realize this. I do not want my kids to have the same experience. Luckily, the current curriculum in our province includes lots of deep understanding. The kids know how addition and multiplication work. They can explain, re-group, skip count – the whole nine yards. I’m really pleased about that, and I know that this is better, harder, and more important work than the memorization I did when I was young.

On the other hand, their current teachers have not emphasized actually *knowing* these facts – you know, just being able to say 6×4=24 without hesitating. And it seems to me that when push comes to shove, you need to know the answer. I used to believe that, with practice, they would just sort of pick up the facts over time. I no longer believe this: as a Special Education teacher, I do educational testing for our high school students, and I regularly see students – some of whom are taking courses as complex as Calculus – struggling to do the testing because it must be done without a calculator. It’s not just that the work is harder to complete without the technology; they often have little number sense. They quite literally cannot add and subtract. They are hamstrung in their complex thinking because they don’t know the basics. I don’t want this for my kids. So they’re memorizing – in a fun, non-judgmental way, I swear.

And yet… today, I had a conversation with my English department that was more complicated than I had anticipated. At its heart, I think the discussion was about how best we can help the students understand the complexities of literature. Is it more important to develop readers first or is our priority to teach analysis (as if this needs to be a dichotomy – sigh)? Can we trust the students to get what they need out of books that they choose? How much direction must we provide in order for them to develop complex thinking about and understanding of the written word? We found ourselves in different places along a continuum of thinking. I was very firmly in the “trust the kids; they’ll learn it (with good guidance)” camp.

On reflection, I see this discussion as the inverse mirror of my math facts concern. I’m asking my own children to memorize their math facts completely devoid of context. Apparently I think this is important. But, if pressed, I would argue something quite different about reading. I believe that my students need to *read* before they can really dig into the depths of literature. And to get them to read, I need to talk about books, provide books, value reading of all kinds, and offer lots of choice for their reading. Then, as we read, we will begin to talk figurative language and etc. (This is an oversimplification of the process, but you get the picture. Elisabeth Ellington’s post hits at some of what I mean – and she kindly sent me on to a post by Donalyn Miller which says more of what I’m talking about but much more eloquently. ) Some of my colleagues think differently: given that the students don’t read much, we must directly teach various literary devices, methods of development, etc. The paucity of the students’ reading experience means that memorization is required. Only then will they be able to understand literature. I bet they make their kids memorize math facts, too.

Hmm… the kids have long since finished their math game, but here I sit, writing, deleting, pondering, writing again. I have to stop, but I have a lot more to say about this. For now, here’s my take away: It’s easy for me to feel strongly about how to teach reading and writing – trust the kids, let them read; it’s easy enough for me to think that the old school way is, frankly, less effective. But I don’t seem to believe that about math facts, now do I? So, first, where’s the mismatch? And, second, I’d better not be too quick to judge.



Slice of Life Day 29, March 2018

Thanks to Two Writing Teachers for this wonderful month of inspiration.


13 thoughts on “Reading & Writing & ‘Rithmetic

  1. Great reflection and I have the same inconsistency in my thoughts and practice at times. One of the reasons I picked my OLW (challenge) this year was so that I would spend more time working to align my beliefs and practice better- your post is great food for thought.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. WOW! This could be a mentor text on reflective practitioner! When we run up against cognitive dissonance do we default back to our long-held beliefs or do we question, ponder, reconsider? I have changed my stance on educational issues numerous times over the years as I’ve welcomed this reflective practice. Sometimes I think it would just be easier to go on auto-pilot and do what I’ve always done without stressing over every decision. But I’m too far gone for that thinking now! LOL
    Thank you for such a thought provoking and inspiring slice. The name of your blog really says it all, “Persistence and Pedagogy”! KUDOS!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Bravo for sharing the struggle you are having matching your practice at home and school with your beliefs. It’s clear in your slice that you are an excellent, passionate teacher and a wonderful mother. I think just wrestling with these ideas helps us become stronger teachers (and parents) even when we aren’t sure what the answer is. So often it lies somewhere in between the two extremes, and is dependent on the individual.


  4. When I started teaching AP Lit and Comp, the kids fought me on test prep, the kind of old school approach you discuss here. That’s not how I teach literature. I emailed Carol Jago, whose AP Lit book we use, and told her my problem. I read her response to the kids. That quieted them. The best way to teach literature is to read, write, and talk about literature. I don’t give kids lists of lit devices or lectures on structure. All this happens organically in the context of discussion. Even on the multiple choice section of the AP exam, both lit and Lang, you won’t find many questions requiring knowledge of a laundry lit of terms. Our scores are far above the national average. I mention the students’ success only to illustrate Dinalyn’s, Elisabeth’s, and your point. In the final analysis, we must decide if our goal is to turn our students who can define lit concepts and mark meter in poetry, or if our goal is to graduate students who are life-long readers.


  5. Oh, Reflex Math, I know it well. My third grade daughter used it everyday for 10 minutes all of first and second grades. Most days she hated it. Well, she is amazing at her math facts now, with very little review. She entered third grade knowing all basic facts for all four operations. She also understands the foundations of the operations. I understand this post so much. I often struggle between what I understand as best practice in the place I teach and my daughter who is growing academically by leaps and bounds in her very traditional school environment. It is food for thought most definitely.


  6. Wow, there’s a lot of thinking in this post. One of my daughters is a kid who struggles with math facts, and we’ve been through flashcards, programs, games, songs, conceptual understanding…and yes, she’s a little hamstrung as she moves up the ladder through algebra and heads toward pre-calc. There’s a lot of cognitive demand when you have to know formulas, application, and figure out the damn facts as well. I think there are some things you have to memorize, but not too much anymore. Math facts is one of them. Reading requires a lot more thinking, reflecting, connecting, analyzing. You can teach kids the literary devices, but they won’t really matter or sink in until they fall in love with a story–IMHO…


  7. There is a lot to think about here. I was initially taken back to my own math instruction. I was never efficient with my facts… really until I had to teach math myself. You are so reflective. Your students are children are lucky to have you.


  8. Yeah, this is a teacher/parent struggle and a teacher/writer struggle. I guess I think of math facts in the same way I think of some basic phonics and sight words. Facts can be connected to concrete images when we use manipulatives, but in the end, they need to be memorized just like the alphabet and sight words. We don’t want kids to think that the facts are the real essence of math, though. Many fifth graders think being fast with facts means you’re good at math…and the reverse (converse?), too. My daughter used to complain mightily about playing “Around the World” in her fifth grade class. She couldn’t say the facts as fast as some kids, and it made her feel slow and dumb. I haven’t played that game in my class ever since. In the odd twist, though, when she got to high school and switched to a Catholic school, she found that the Catholic school kids all knew grammar rules and could diagram sentences. She said her public school’s writers’ workshops had neglected grammar. I did not immediately switch to teaching sentence diagramming. I have some limits. Still, being chastised by my daughter, I did wonder if I should be paying more attention to helping students with rules and conventions. I think that conflict is similar to yours. Thanks for getting us all into reflective mode. It’s healthy.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Lots of great thinking in this post and the comments. As I read, I thought of two quotes from 19th century grammar books that I have. 1) “The limits of my language are the limits of my mind. All I know is what I have words for.” -Ludwig Wittgenstein. 2) The simple declarative sentence is the building block of all composition. -Unknown. Knowledge is important. The question is how to acquire that knowledge. And, the trick is keeping the proverbial horse and cart in the proper alignment so there is forward movement and the ride is interesting. The issues that you write about are uniquely addressed in the “classical education movement.” by viewing the stages as grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Grammar is all about basic knowledge and skills. Logic is about the process of correct reasoning. Rhetoric is about argument and composition. I conducted PD for a dozen private classical schools around the US. I’m impressed with what I’ve seen.


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