I was determined to make Mrs. Hall’s list. Our tough fourth-grade math teacher was infamous for her sharp comments — “You look like a lost ball in high weeds” — as well as her annual prize to the few students she deemed worthy of A’s: a trip to the movies. The previous year, my older sister had gone to see “Godzilla,” which frightened her to tears, thereby giving her a taste of what the rest of Mrs. Hall’s students endured over the course of the year. Born with a fiercely competitive streak and accustomed to doing well in school, I knew that I would make Mrs. Hall’s A list.
That is, until we started long division. I struggled through the page of problems Mrs. Hall assigned for homework, erasing again and again as I tried to figure out the difference between a dividend and a divisor. Able to complete only five problems over the course of an excruciating evening, I begged my mother the next morning to let me stay home from school, believing that I could never show my face in math class with incomplete homework.
My mother would have none of it. No, she did not think the assignment was unfair. No, she would not write a note to Mrs. Hall. And no, I absolutely could not stay home from school. Thus began her long-standing policy for schoolwork: If my sisters or I didn’t understand something, it was our job, not hers, to talk to the teacher. Never once did my mother say, “Long division? How developmentally inappropriate. We should change the Maryland state math standards!”
I wonder what would have happened if my mother had taken the approach of the comedian Louis C.K., whose tweets about his children’s homework recently went viral: “Yet again I must tell my kid ‘don’t answer it. It’s a bad question.’ ” “Who is writing these? And why?” “My kids used to love math. Now it makes them cry. Thanks, standardized testing and Common Core!”
My mother could have said some version of those things in response to my meltdown, but she didn’t. She chose not to blame the question, or the teacher, or the test or the standards. And because of her steady insistence that if I took ownership of my learning, I could master any subject, I recovered from long division and went on to take AP calculus, multivariable calculus and linear algebra in high school.
I sympathize with Louis C.K.’s kids. I know firsthand the intense anxiety that math assignments can provoke. But I’m certainly not sorry that they are being taught Common Core State Standards. As a math teacher, I have embraced these standards. I have seen kids solve problems I never would have thought to ask, then explain their thinking and justify their answers with pride. I have seen kids who used to hate the subject scribble, “I love math!” all over their tests. That joy is rooted in their persistence.
So while I disagree with Louis C.K.’s analysis of the content of his children’s homework, that’s not what bothers me about his tweets. It’s the implicit message that kids should find something to blame when school is hard. They will face challenging assignments for the next dozen years in school, in all subjects, regardless of what standards are driving the instruction. Rather than a way out, the best thing children can learn is how to help themselves.
In my college freshman economics class, the final exam asked us to determine whether the statement “In the long run, we are all dead” was true, false or uncertain. I did not choose to leave it blank. I did not choose to tweet @myprofessor that his question was ridiculous. Rather, I chose to grapple with it as best I could and justify my answer — and to review the test with my instructor afterward. (Like most of life’s great questions, the correct answer was “uncertain.”)
I hope my students have parents who react to their frustrations as my mother did, and as most parents did before Common Core became a convenient scapegoat for any academic difficulty. Teach your children that struggle is a part of learning and that, sooner or later, everyone will be the lost ball. But don’t teach them to blame the weeds.