Tuesday, December 15, 2009

New Tricks for an Old Dog

By Chester Campbell

You can teach an old dog new tricks, but he may feel they’re not all worth knowing. Correcting homework for a sixth grader has helped refresh my memory of many things I once knew but had forgotten. It has also taught me a lot of concepts concerning the new math that I’m not sure I needed to know.

Hopefully most sixth graders are not like my grandson. He doesn’t know his multiplication tables worth a flip. Ask him what 8 times 8 is and he’ll narrow his eyes and hum and haw, do a little finger counting, and likely come up with some ridiculous number. When I think of 8 times 8, a big 64 automatically pops up in my mind. Those numbers were drilled into me at an early age. As a result, I can multiply in my head or on paper about as fast as I can use a calculator. I suppose kids in later grades all use calculators, but Justin hasn’t reached that point yet.

They use a lot of terms in math that I don’t recall. Maybe they were around, but we didn’t use them. Things like greatest common factor (GCF), mode, range, and set. But they’re well ahead of where I was at this stage of the game. The lessons include formulas and problems involving algebra and geometry that I didn’t get into until high school. They’re even into statistics, something I studied in college.

One thing I can do without is all the zeros they insist on using, supposedly to make problems easier to understand. To me it’s simpler to line up numbers correctly without all that folderol. But what do I know?

Some subjects haven’t changed except for the addition of facts that have come along over the years. What’s history to a sixth grader, like the Great Depression and World War II and the civil rights movement, were just things I lived through. My perspective on what happened may differ a bit from what’s recorded in the history books.

Of course history, geography, and government (what we called civics) are lumped together under the heading of social studies. It also includes sociology, a term I don’t recall until college.

Another subject that has developed a whole new world is science. I still recall a lot of the old basic science, like Newton's laws of motion, but so much has been learned in the past half a century that it staggers the mind. Justin's homework last night was on the planets, and it pointed out numerouis things learned from various space probes.

Back in the old days, English covered reading and writing. Now they’re separate subjects. But the rules haven’t changed. They don’t diagram sentences any longer, which is fine with me, but subjects and predicates and clauses and phrases are still used the same way I learned them. If Justin is typical of the current crop of kids, they have a long way to go in learning how to use them understandably.

You’d think a boy who lives in a house where his grandparents read constantly—books, newspapers, etc. —would have picked up a love of reading. You’d think wrong. What he has picked up is a love of staring at a computer monitor or a TV screen. He has to read some there, of course, but it does little for expanding his vocabulary.

So what have I learned from this exercise? Sixth grade students are exposed to a world of information that’s far in advance of what I experienced at that age. If they apply themselves conscientiously and absorb all they can, and continue this through high school, they’ll have several legs up on where I was when I accepted that diploma back in June of 1943. But for too many of them, I suspect the impatience and the lure of looking for the easy way will get them sidetracked onto the route to mediocrity.

Those who “get it” will move on to develop their observation and communication skills and become the mystery writers of tomorrow.


Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Remember that show-"Are you Smarter than a fifth grader?" Hmm.

We used to play Go To The Head of the Class when we were kids--do they still make that game?
Wonder if the questions are updated...

Beth Terrell said...

I still have to use all those math concepts in my work sometimes. I never fully understood the slope of a line until I had to teach it to a room full of people. I hated all that mathematical stuff in school (though I always loved Algebra), but now I kind of enjoy it.

I think a love of reading is among the greatest gifts a person can have. There are so many wonderful books out there. I hope Justin finds a passion for it one of these days.