It’s always good to look on the bright side of things, right? (Or at least frequently good. Relentlessly doing so veers toward denial.)
Nonetheless, when you have a kid in school in this age of absurd overtesting, inappropriately high-stakes standardized testing, and corporate influence in education, you have to look for the silver linings.
One of the things many parents I know have been struggling with, which is smaller than the overtesting problem yet related to it, is the poor quality of the Engage NY materials that teachers are being suddenly expected to use. While I wouldn’t dismiss them wholesale (I actually think some of the ways they approach teaching math are kind of neat), they were clearly rushed out and did not benefit from the services of a copyeditor. The instructions are frequently unclear, ambiguous, or even flat out wrong. There are subject-verb disagreements, typos, gratuitous brand names, and imprecise measurements.
But I’m trying to see these challenges as teachable moments. So here are five skills that these materials have helped me either start to teach my daughter, or think about how to teach her, this fall:
- Sometimes close enough is good enough. So I still think that if you are teaching kids to measure things in whole centimeters, then the lines you give them to measure shouldn’t be 5 2/10 and 5 4/10 cm long. Especially if you are then going to ask them to add the lengths together and they haven’t started fractions yet. Some of us do own rulers with millimeter markings and if they are there our kids will insist on using them. And yet, sometimes close really is good enough, possibly even just as good for the goal at hand. Identifying when those times are is a pretty great life lesson.
- Learn what you need to learn to get the job done. This is the alternate lesson of the not-whole-cm polygon: if getting an early introduction in fractions is something exciting, rather than stressful, then measuring precisely was a pretty great opportunity, and in fact made the whole thing a lot more interesting (even if it also made bedtime a whole lot later too). Diving into something because it is interesting even if people tell you it’s above your head is more or less a foundational impulse for a life-long learner. It’s also a crucial instinct for all sorts of specific career paths—journalist, scientist, inventor, entrepreneur. (Think: “Well, to make my awesome idea work, I’d have to figure out electrical engineering. Huh. OK!”)
- Don’t follow the rules if they are wrong. I actually had a bit of fight with my kid over this, but I dug in my heels. There were a series of pictures of objects, with centimeter squares underneath to count to measure them. The instructions said to count each square to find the length of the objects. (My emphasis.) Except that on some pictures, the squares extended way out beyond the ends of the objects. My daughter wanted to count all the squares as per instructions. I said that would obviously give the wrong answer and was therefore flatly an unacceptable choice. (Not, I should note, that I think it’s a problem for her to ever get her homework wrong. This was a principle thing.) I asked her if she wanted to be one of those people who were hit by a train because they listened when their GPS told them to turn onto a train track. Next time around the example might be would you treat someone as less than a full human if a law said you should.
- Always ask what assumptions are driving what you read. Why do you think Raz Kids has two separate “ebooks” called Shoes Women Wear and Shoes Men Wear? Why would Squanto help the pilgrims after he had been kidnapped and held as a slave by other Europeans? What families do you know that don’t match the structure in this story?
- Question authority. Does that sentence sound wrong? Why yes, that’s because it is wrong. Is that science fact dodgy? Yup. Does the fact that you are 7 years old and it’s printed in your homework mean you can’t recognize it’s wrong? No. Does a grammar mistake in your math word problem negate the value of that problem? Also no. Does everyone make mistakes sometimes? Yes. But if you identify something wrong and you can articulate why, then you have every right to question it. Now, it’s going to be another set of history lessons about what happens when you do, but education is an ongoing process. We’ll get there.
(This column was originally published in Metroland, the Capital Region of New York’s former alt-weekly, on Dec. 5, 2013.)