I'm Failing First Grade

By Elena Beyzarov, NYC
Special to NYC HOLD

As I came home from work on Friday afternoon, I just had to yell out to my daughter the one prevailing thought that I had since the minute I woke up that morning. "Yeah it's the weekend, NO HOMEWORK!!!!!" To add to the effect, I even jumped up and down in my heels. Madeline too was happy, but she merely smiled at me and continued to play with her dolls. So why did my enthusiasm surpass that of my child's? Well, given my daughter's-or more appropriately my-first few months in the first grade, I'm rather surprised that I didn't break a heel with the force of my leaps.

You see, my child has been designated by the board of education as one of many "subjects" who will be undergoing an experimental treatment called "Everyday Math," developed by the Chicago RESEARCH project. Now I'm not sure how things are done in education, but in medicine, a patient is usually informed if an experimental drug is going to be given to him and he has the right to refuse. And even if he does agree to be the guinea pig, he's required to sign a consent form, essentially stating that he has been forewarned about the long list of possible side effects and questionable efficacy of this unproven treatment. Since the consent form for the Chicago RESEARCH project must have gotten lost amidst Madeline's school supply list (the one that incidentally required a calculator in the first grade), I keep asking her to bring home another one.

But I guess I'm comparing apples and oranges because it's not like Madeline is being given drugs. She's just being taught one of the most essential disciplines to mankind by methods that have never been used in most states-or countries for that matter. And she's one lucky girl, because in this new first grade math curriculum she has been privileged to learn-or more appropriately, been exposed to--age-inappropriate abstract concepts that are, at best, applications of basic skills that are based on the assumption that one can at least add and subtract. The only way to teach-or rather force-feed-these concepts to young children is to completely operationallize the problems. By the way, Everyday Math was designed to replace memorization and operations with comprehension.

One of my favorite examples is the concept of odd and even numbers, which I thoroughly enjoyed explaining to my five year-old child who has yet to formally learn addition, subtraction, and more importantly for odd and even number, division and multiplication. She was finally able to give number five an "odd" label after drawing five sticks holding hands and realizing that the last stick did not have a friend to hold hands with. To her, number five was odd because it had a lonely stick.

Another subject, which I found particularly helpful in initiating my smoking habit, involved counting money. Me and my daughter progressed overnight-or were expected to-from counting pennies to totaling a group of circles labeled with the letters N (for nickel) and P (for penny) -P P P N N N P P P P N N. Because the Ns and Ps were so cleverly dispersed, she had to count a few pennies, then ADD to that number a few nickels, and then ADD some more to that number another few pennies. Oh by the way, she hasn't yet been formally taught in school how to add and subtract. And if you take on the task at home, be sure to never use the words plus, minus or equal. These condemned words have been replaced with "operator terms" such as addition and subtraction, which I find to be much more first-grade kid friendly-especially the word "operator."

The very next lesson involved shrinking coins. She had to be able to make P P P P N N P N P P P into N N N N P (hope I got that right).

Madeline now knows that whenever you cross out five Ps, you write down an N. I'm sure she can understand how this methodic crossing out of Ps relates to the fact that five pennies equals a nickel. And if not, no matter, because there really wasn't any time for this frivolous business of understanding since I only had a night before her test to cram all of these concepts into her five-year old brain. But why the hurry? That's because another challenging feature of Everyday Math is the incongruity between the classwork and the homework. So while my daughter was busy exchanging money in the classroom, she was reinforcing her newly acquired skills by counting the number of clocks in the house for homework. To be fair, on a few assignments, she was asked to name the presidents on some coins and then to count a bunch of pennies-close enough.

The day before Madeline's first math test, she brought home a review sheet containing practice problems that made me wonder whether she was moonlighting at some weekend math class. We failed the first first-grade math test, which certainly came as a shock to me because how can a 5-year old child fail anything after cramming two weeks worth of work into one night. It was then that I had the privilege of speaking with the school's math coach. Cigarette in hand, I pleaded with her that in order to learn math, Madeline-like me-needs practice and repetition, preferably in the form of homework assignments that bear some sort of semblance to her class work. Thankfully, I was diagnosed by her immediately-and conveniently over the phone-as a "struggling parent with a struggling child." I was told to play math games with Madeline that involved long and short rods, which, to my bewildered response, she reassured me that she would demonstrate during a parent workshop held conveniently during working hours. This brings me to yet another challenge-placing Everyday Math into the context of the everyday working parent. Being one myself, my evenings are filled with taking care of Madeline's 10-month old sister, dinner, bath and bedtimes, and off course, Madeline's four other daily first-grade homework assignments. Any day now, she'll be able to write down independently her favorite recipe for her writing homework, so I'm hoping to shave down my daily first-grade homework time from 2 hours to 1.5 hours.

I'm happy to say that Madeline did do better on her next math test because the teacher was nice enough to send a review sheet home the week before and my mother, who was on vacation during that critical week, was able come over every evening and watch my other child while I spent hours drilling PPPs and NNs into Madeline. I'm planning vacation time from work for her next math test.

It's hard to stand in the way of progress, but sometimes you yearn for the good ole days when two plus two equaled four and children were by far more excited than parents at the thought of a weekend reprieve from homework.

Elena Beyzarov, PharmD
Staten Island, NY

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