Monday, November 06, 2000

'Riting + 'Rithmetic

The new trend in education, at least here in Northern N.J., where the standardized tests strike fear in the heart of administrators, is writing. Writing about everything. Writing about reading, yes, but also writing about science, writing about math, writing about writing. It’s not enough simply to learn something--you must also be able to write about how you did it.

And on the face of it, that’s not a bad thing. Goodness knows, the state of writing amongst adults today is not good. My former boss was always stunned at her assistants’ inability to write a simple business letter. Copy-editors on e-mail lists I’ve belonged to could not believe how unable alleged college graduates were to string together a proper sentence. The newspaper where I now work receives press releases and letters to the editor from the general public, and they do give one pause. So the idea of teaching children from a young age to explain themselves in a clear and rational way has some allure.

But man, it makes it hard on the kids with language delays and disabilities. My daughter can’t explain how she does anything. She couldn’t tell you how she ties her shoes. The thought of putting things she can’t put into verbal words into written words fills her with dread. And it was bad enough when we were just talking about book reports and reading comprehension.

Now, she can’t even have math as a safe haven. She got an A in math last year, when all she had to do was memorize math facts and work problems. It was a blissfully word-free place in the day. But now we’re in 3rd grade, where you have to work problems and then write a paragraph about how you did it. Well, who the heck knows how they do math? Am I the only one who coasted through school learning how math works but not why? Is she? In the end, does it matter? And if it’s so important, why can’t the textbook even state it very clearly? I’m paging through looking for the answers she’s supposed to be writing, and it’s about as clear as trigonometry.

Since she’s still classified as special-ed though in a regular-ed classroom, I could probably ask for a modification and exempt her from the writing requirement for subjects like math. I’m particularly tempted because I know the only reason they’re making a big deal of all this writing is because the 4th-grade standardized test is full of it, and although most educators I’ve talked to think the test is exactly that--full of it--they have to teach to it or risk looking like they haven’t taught anything. But I’ve been trying so hard to give her a non-modified year, and working at home to keep her caught up with what’s going on in the classroom, that I hate to fall back now. If she gets all the pure math questions on a test right, and misses all the writing questions, she can still get a passing grade. We’re working toward that.

Ironic, I guess, that although I’m a writer by trade, I can’t teach my child to write. But I don’t think I ever could have written very convincingly about math. I was always too good at faking it to really deeply understand what I was doing. I’m glad I’m not in 3rd grade now, that’s for sure.

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