Saturday, October 16, 2004
How Not to Teach Math by Matthew Clavel "New York’s chancellor Klein’s plan doesn’t compute. | 7 March 2003

It wasn’t working. We’d gone through six straight wrong answers, and now the kids were tired of feeling lost. It was only October, and already my fourth-grade public school class in the South Bronx was demoralized. Day after day of going over strange, seemingly disconnected math lessons had squelched my students’ interest in the subject.

Then, quietly, 10-year-old David spoke up. “Mr. Clavel, no one understands this stuff.” He looked up at me with a defeated expression; other children nodded pleadingly. We had clearly reached a crossroads. How would Mr. Clavel, a young teacher, inexperienced but trying hard, react to David’s statement—so obvious to everyone in the class that it didn’t even require seconding?

“Look,” I began, sighing deeply. “Math isn’t half as hard as you all probably think right now.” A few kids seemed relieved—at least I wasn’t just denying their problem. “There are different ways to teach it,” I continued. “I don’t want to do this either . . . so we’re not going to—at least most of the time.” I was thinking out loud now, and many of the children looked startled. What did I mean? We weren’t going to learn math? “We can use these math books when we need them, but I’m going to figure out different ways to teach you the most important things.”

If school officials knew how far my lessons would deviate from the school district-mandated math program in the months ahead, they probably would have fired me on the spot. But boy, did my kids need a fresh approach. Since kindergarten, most of them had been taught math using this same dreadful curriculum, called Everyday Mathematics—a slightly older version of a program that New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein has now unwisely chosen for most of Gotham’s public elementary schools; the district had phased in Everyday Mathematics grade by grade, and it had just reached fourth grade during my first year of teaching.

The curriculum’s failure was undeniable: not one of my students knew his or her times tables, and few had mastered even the most basic operations; knowledge of multiplication and division was abysmal. Perhaps you think I shouldn’t have rejected a course of learning without giving it a full year (my school had only recently hired me as a 23-year-old Teach for America corps member). But what would you do, if you discovered that none of your fourth graders could correctly tell you the answer to four times eight?"

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