It’s a commonly accepted fact that my dad was not a big fan of school. Who knows why? Probably something to do with the fact that he is the true embodiment of a kinesthetic learner, and the nuns didn’t exactly cater to that learning type in 1950’s Catholic elementary school. By college his desk was famously filled with empty peanut shells, instead of the tools of learning. His hand always looks a little funny when gripping a pen. It belongs on a kid’s shoulder, a steering wheel, or a ball of some variety. Nonetheless, he usually was in charge of board-related teaching for us kids. We had one of those magnetic letter sets, and he’d sit us down and go through phonetics, all of the versions of the -at family, etc. Similarly, he’d write up sample math problems for us to solve on a big chalkboard, back when writing on a big chalkboard was, in and of itself, fun.
Naturally, then, when I came home at the beginning of fourth grade panicking over having forgotten long division, he stepped up to the plate. He drew out a long division problem on the chalkboard, carefully cased the problem in the standard upside-down-L shaped bracket, and proceeded to confuse me with an explanation of long division that was completely foreign. I had no idea what the man was talking about. And as he tried variations of the same explanatory model that he learned back in the day, I grew increasingly furious. I wasn’t usually the kid who got mad about homework. I never really needed much help, either, I just enlisted them in order to push me over the top, from the A zone to the A+ zone. But that night, as we lay on the rust-colored family room carpet and sweated it out, I was flummoxed. I tried to capture an elusive memory of how we began to learn long division the previous spring, and I couldn’t. Because he kept blathering on about some other version of long division that made Absolutely. No. Sense.
You might think this memory made me sympathetic to the tears that were shed the other morning over my own fourth grader’s long division homework. As a series of upside-down-L-bracketed problems stared up at us from the sheet of paper, the tension mounted. You see, she used new words for long division, words that I ignored when the parent sheet came home the other night. Words like “area model” and “standard algorithm.” I ignored my own parent homework at my peril, and I paid the price. Fortunately for me, I am a parent during the time of explanatory YouTube videos, so we eventually hashed it out. But the homework paper bore the telltale scars of angry eraser slashes and tear splotches.
I won’t go into the typical lament about how “new math” is “bad.” I don’t think it’s bad–it’s just different. And trying to talk about math using a different set of words and concepts? Not going to work. Just ask my dad. He didn’t have YouTube, and I’m fairly certain that my tear-splattered chalkboard wound up cracked over his head, Anne Shirley like, a sacrifice at the altar of that cruel goddess, fourth grade long division.