Don’t be a Puzzled Penguin

In the past six months, I’ve learned more about being a first grader than I have since I was a first grader. Part of each of my days is spent in first grade, learning to read and do addition and subtraction. Part of each day is spent in third grade as well, learning to read a little better and do multiplication and division.

There are a lot more parents, like me, in first grade this year than there were in the 1973-74 academic year. As I recall, it used to be mostly little kids, but now parents are having to figure out how to use all the many online tools that make the remote learning elementary school go. Fortunately, we all have a six or seven-year-old nearby to help us.

It’s kind of a vicious cycle, but in order that we don’t get too frustrated, we call it a symbiotic relationship: Big Man wants help with his homework; before I can begin to help him, he must teach me how to use the online platform that jealously guards this day’s homework inside its electronic labyrinth.

It can be taxing, but we’re getting through it together. Our two heads combined are enough to graduate one of us from first grade. I just hope it’s the one still full of potential.

Along the way, we’ve have had some adventures and met some characters. One of the noteworthy entities I’ve met in electronic first grade is the Puzzled Penguin. The Puzzled Penguin shows up occasionally on one of the arithmetic applications.

I first met the Puzzled Penguin when Big Man and I encountered a math problem that went something like this:

                The Puzzled Penguin thinks 7 + 5 = 10 + 3. Is he correct?

Before I had even finished reading the problem, Big Man announced with certainty: “Nope, he’s wrong!”

I was amazed at the speed of his calculation. “Wow! How’d you do that addition so fast?”

“I didn’t add anything.”

“Then how do you know he’s wrong.”

“Easy. The Puzzled Penguin’s always wrong.”

“But why is he wrong?”

Big Man shrugged. “Because he’s dumb?”

“I mean why is he wrong in this case?”

“Because he’s still dumb?”

I put the screen squarely in front of him. “Okay. Do the math and tell me why he’s wrong.”

He gave me an exasperated look. “I already told you the answer. Because the Puzzled Penguin is always wrong.”

As he was speaking, Buster entered the room. “Oh, the Puzzled Penguin,” Buster mused. “I remember him. That dumb bird is always wrong.”

The only thing we learned about arithmetic that day is that penguins are consistent.

Believe me, we’ve tried to help him.

Cherished historical figured pulled from his pedestal

For his 7th grade Language Arts class (what we old people used to call English), Big Brother keeps a reading log. Fortunately, he gets to read whatever books he wants, because he is not an eager reader, and is not particularly fond of fiction. He does the best the with history, so he has been reading a book about the American Civil War. For those who did not go to school in the US, and those who did not pay attention during their US schooling, it’s important to the forthcoming incident to know that the American Civil War lasted from 1861 to 1865.

Big Brother was getting close to the end of the book, last I checked. This morning, as all the boys were getting logged into school (wrap your heads around that, old people), I asked him if he’d finished.

From his classroom on the couch, he replied that he had.

“How did the Civil War end?” I asked.

He gave the standard reply of any 12-year-old who doesn’t want to be quizzed about schoolwork: “I don’t remember.”

“Really?” I asked. “You just finished it yesterday.”

“You already know how it ended,” he told me.

“But you just read the book,” I insisted.

From his classroom, on the loveseat, Buster (3rd grade) piped up in his brother’s defense. “But you know the most about history,” he told me.

“Yes, but . . . “

Big Man (1st grade) cut me off. Sitting in his classroom on the recliner, he forestalled my argument and closed the case in Big Brother’s defense. “But you were the one who was in that fight,” he told me, just before all three boys broke into a peal of laughter.

I just got cut down by a six-year-old.

Can you blame me for being a proud father?

I’m the guy in the middle. The one holding the gun.

The new new new math

The concept of new math has been around since I was a kid in school. The compulsion for parents to complain about the new math has existed as long. Numbers have interacted with each other in the same way since counting was invented, but once every generation, a new genius came up with a better way to teach children what Johnny had left after he gave Cindy three of his apples.

The generational advancements in mathematical technique seem to come about every other year now. Either we’re producing new educational super-innovators at a highly accelerated rate or the educational super-innovator from the year before last wasn’t quite the bright light we were sold.

It seems like every time I get presented with one of my kids’ curriculums, it comes with the announcement that the school has started a new math program. In theory, each new math program is better than the last. I wait for my kids to make amazing advances in their understanding of arithmetic. They make plodding advancements, but any disappointment I may feel is soon washed away by news the school will soon be adopting an innovative new math curriculum.

None of these new maths has ever turned a child of mine into anything approaching a budding mathematician. They do succeed at making it impossible for me to give my kids any meaningful help with their math homework.

I assure you, I use arithmetic almost daily. At the risk of seeming a braggart, I am fairly accomplished at 1st-3rd grade level arithmetic.

Can I answer the questions on my kids’ homework assignments? No. I cannot.

Yesterday, my 3rd grader came to me for help with the following question:

“Enter the division that is shown when the fourth multiplier finger is down: ___ ÷ ___ = ___”

I don’t know what the fourth multiplier finger is, or what it means. I know a lot more about what the third finger means, and I just about gave it to this math program. Then I remembered a child was present.

Anyhow, shouldn’t a math problem have some sort of numbers or variables in it?

I found numbers very helpful for learning math.

Fortunately, my boy knew just enough about the mysterious fourth finger to teach me that it somehow meant 4 x 9 = 36. He was sketchy on how division worked into it, though.

Being the math geniuses we are, father and son alike, we reversed it to 36 ÷ 9 = 4. It turns out that was the right answer. Don’t ask me why. It’s a genius thing.

It seems like math is nowadays most important to education in figuring out how much money can be made by selling new and improved programs to schools biannually. Ages ago, I learned that 3 x 9 = 27 without having to flip off any innocent bystanders, but maybe not flipping off bystanders is the mark of someone whose time has passed.

Stay tuned, in case I learn how fingers 1, 2, and 5 are useful to mankind.

In case you thought I was exaggerating. Here’s the answer screen for the graded homework.

School on Screens

Well, it’s happening. God only knows how it will play out, but this train won’t stop now.

Online schooling begins tomorrow.

Even though I haven’t been a real Catholic for 30 years, I have an impulse to cross myself when I make that statement, or even when I think about it.

The emails have been coming fast and furious from the middle and elementary school administrations as well as individual teachers. We’re drowning in informational attachments.

The boys have all gotten their schedules. Big Brother’s 7th grade schedule contains an elective called “The Great Outdoors,” which was not one of his top choices. The schedule was silent about the irony of learning all about the outdoors from a computer screen inside his house. His schedule is the most detailed, which is good, because he’s going to have to manage his responsibilities largely on his own.

The Great Outdoors, transformed into screen time for educational purposes.

His little brothers will need lots of help.

It used to be that 3rd grade and 1st grade schedules looked like this:

Morning: Drop them off at school

Afternoon: Pick them up from school

This year we have a day-long schedule of live and taped events the children must access on the computer every day. I am happy to see there is a break each day at 10:15 for the students to have a snack and the parents to crack open a bottle of wine. We weren’t in the habit of drinking in the morning, but as they say, welcome to the new normal.

Lunch is at 11:45, which is just about the time we will be realizing that wine is insufficient to our needs. A couple shots of something a little more robust should help us prepare for the afternoon sessions

Preparing our learning devices for the big day.

I think whoever made up the schedule gave up on it once they hit noon. The afternoon is a hodge-podge of pre-recorded sessions, which seem like they could be done in any order, but also seem to leave the administration entirely in the parents’ hands.

As daunting as this is, it may not turn out to be a bad thing. Parents have been lulled by our system into believing they are not ultimately responsible for their children’s educations. Some have leapt onto that slippery slope to the point where they don’t feel responsible for their kids’ emotional development.

Maybe this experiment will bring some parents back to their responsibilities. It won’t be fair to all parents, but nothing ever is. How fair it is to my family is not our top concern right now. Our top concern is that ourchildren progress, in all the facets of their lives. This, we are determined to see them do.

Maybe there’s a silver lining in online schooling, if it gets parents more involved in their children’s development. Or, maybe it’s just a train wreck in the making. Maybe it’s both. I was always partial to D: All of the above on multiple choice tests when I didn’t have a clue what was going on.