Tuesday, September 4, 2012

"Ah, More, Infinitely More..."

For September: Who knew Walt Whitman is as fresh today as in 1874?  Listen:

"An old man's thought of school,
An old man gathering youthful memories and blooms that youth itself cannot.
Now only do I know you,
O fair auroral skies--O morning dew upon the grass!
And these I see, these sparkling eyes,
These stores of mystic meaning, these young lives,
Building, equipping like a fleet of ships, immortal ships,
Soon to sail out over the measureless seas,
On the soul's voyage.
Only a lot of boys and girls?
Only the tiresome spelling, writing, ciphering classes?
Only a public school?
Ah, more, infinitely more;
(As George Fox rais'd his warning cry, "Is it this pile of brick and mortar, these dead floors, windows, rails, you call the church?
Why this is not the church at all-- the church is living, ever living souls.")
And you America,
Cast you the real reckoning for your present?
The lights and shadows of your future, good or evil?
To girlhood, boyhood look, the teacher and the school."
--Walt Whitman, "An Old Man's Thought of School," composed for the inauguration of Camden NJ's Cooper public school, 1874

Image: Cooper public school ca. 1910.  Source:  http://www.dvrbs.com, a non-profit site that promotes music, the adoption of senior dogs, and provides a trove of information about Camden, NJ.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Game Changer: The QAMA Calculator

A calculator that won't give you the answer has me doing math for fun.
First, a confession:  I'm innumerate (well, OK, maybe semi-numerate) but I'm not proud of it, any more than you would be if you were illiterate.  A series of unfortunate or just plain indifferent educational experiences, punctuated by the occasional Year of Living Math Hell (you know who you are, Mrs. L and Sister A) left me stumbling through every math occasion like a carny at a coronation.  The "A's" and "B's" I got were achieved by sheer terror and memorization, the half-grasped concepts rapidly forgotten like so much vermicelli in the drain basket. 

By the time math started to get challenging, right around the second half of Algebra I, I couldn't sustain even that and got the first C of my life.  Next year was even worse- D in Algebra II and Trigonometry - and I gave up.  I got put in Calculus in college with predictable results, so I never took a math class again. 

Years later, to prepare for the GREs, I taught myself what I needed and passed with a respectable score.  That's when I started to have an inkling that maybe I wasn't stupid in one part of my brain. Maybe I could learn math, and I hadn't had the right teacher.   I continued teaching myself, performing well as I moved on to jobs where I had to handle large budgets, work in Excel, perform estimates and projections and so on. 

But it wasn't fun.  I always felt anxious.  I checked and double-checked and triple-checked my work.  I did a good job, but there was no pleasure in it.

So when I saw the QAMA Calculator, which won't give you the answer unless you first give it a reasonable estimate, I hoped it would force me to develop that facility with numbers, the feel for them that I've noticed and envied in my math-adept friends.   I ordered it.  Immediately.

Ripping open the package a few days later, I was a little daunted by the instructions, but I jumped in and tried a few triple-digit multiplication problems.  As promised, I couldn't get it to give up the goods (the product, for all you smug math mavens) until I thought and thought some more and came up with an estimate close to the real answer.  Then voila! the answer appeared.

This is major:  I can't tell you the sense of triumph and affirmation I felt when I finally got it right.  I tried another one, and another.  A lifelong math avoider, suddenly I WAS DOING MATH FOR FUN!  Do you understand what this means?  In a matter of minutes the QAMA had me challenging myself for the pure game of it.

The QAMA website warns that you have to use it all the time for it to work - that every child in a classroom should be given their own calculator so they estimate EVERY time they do math.  It won't help build that wonderful fluency with numbers if you make them share or only trot it out occasionally.  This makes sense.

But still - for me to actually look forward to doing bills and estimates because I get to use the QAMA is nothing short of miraculous.  I'm starting to get cocky.  I'm bandying numbers about, striding around, standing a little taller.  I'm tossing them off like there's nothing to it.  I'm starting to get it. 

What if the QAMA was in every classroom?  Do you think it would be a game-changer?