Everything I Need to Know I Probably Didn’t Learn in Third Grade

The other day, my nine-year-old daughter, Grace, sent an email to my husband and I, as well as to her grandparents. Since she is just nine, those are the ONLY people with whom she is allowed to have email contact. Still, she is so enamored with having her own account that we are often treated to her random thoughts for the sake of her being able to send a message. This was one of the most recent:

I cant believe I’ve started long division so soon. In thierd grade I learned so much, like… science, multiplication, division, and now you know, long division. I won’t know if this is right or wrong until i’m older, but…WHAT ELSE IS THERE TO LEARN?????!!!!! I’ve already learned addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and long division. When do I use this stuff in my life anyway, besides school? But I geuss I should Know how to do this, just in case.

When do I use this stuff in my life anyway? 

Every teacher everywhere has heard that question before. I actually just heard it from a fellow parent regarding the aforementioned long division as we chit-chatted during our sons’ baseball practice. Her daughter sat next to us, trying to trudge through two more homework problems before being allowed to play on the playground. Part of me sympathized with her frustration. My own daughter has been struggling with the demon that is known as long division, and homework time has dragged on with a lot more whining and overly-forceful erasing. And whining. Did I say whining? Because there is whining. And that can only lead to a passive-aggressive Facebook post from me:

Dear Long Division,

I did not like you much when I was a kid. I still don’t like you much as a parent. I’m starting to think “United we stand, divided we fall” was really an outcry against any homework focusing on you.

Love, English Nerd

It is sometimes hard to justify why learning certain things are important, especially when your child does not always see you using those specific skills in your everyday life. You, after all, are probably the first model your children look to as a barometer of what adulthood will be like. And hey, if you’re doing just fine without long division, why should they have to learn it? It also does not help matters when mom and dad can not quite seem to answer those “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” questions.

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Grace all dressed up to “teach.” She was very thorough in her research on how to look like an educator. She even asked me, “Mom, how did you wear your hair when you were a teacher?” In a spinster bun, naturally.

Just last week, I got to be Billy Madison. In case you don’t know who that is, he is a character played by Adam Sandler, who, as an adult, had to repeat grades one through twelve in order to take over his father’s business. I, on the other hand, only had to repeat third grade, and my teacher was none other than my daughter…and the rest of her class. “A Day In Third Grade” was a way for her and her friends to demonstrate to their parents what they have learned during this school year. And I was worried I would show my daughter on an even grander scale how much I do not remember from grade school, further demonstrating just how little retention of the the third grade curriculum is necessary for success later in life. I mean, we are talking about me, the woman who ran into some trouble helping Grace with her FIRST GRADE math homework.

Sure enough, my old nemesis long division reared its ugly head as one of the lessons, along with spelling, grammar (which I DOMINATED), a test on natural resources (on which my b.s. answer of “we would die” to the question “what would happen if we didn’t have trees?” was counted as correct), and an incredibly anxiety-inducing timed math game.

My daughter and her partner taught a lesson on cursive. Cursive? There are schools out there still teaching cursive? Doesn’t that seem a little archaic in this technological day and age? I know several schools in our area have done away with teaching cursive. But I am thrilled my daughter’s school still does. I’m even begrudgingly happy about the whole long division thing. And I will tell you why.

Educational standards are constantly coming under scrutiny in order to make sure our children are learning the skills they will need to succeed later in life. I have seen more and more emphasis on things like technology, which has pushed out many skills now viewed as passé, like cursive. Handwriting in general doesn’t seem all that important either, seeing as how so much of our daily communication happens electronically. And there is only so much time in the school day.

cursive
Textese doesn’t look so lazy if you write it in cursive. (photo credit: fung.leo via photopin cc)

Yet I would argue that my children are receiving a gift by going to a school that still believes in teaching things like cursive. But not because I think cursive itself is that important. Heck, I don’t even use cursive anymore, in favor of printing. However, I worry that we are becoming a society who cares so much more about the product than the process. If the product itself is not crucial, then it can be easily tossed to the side. But the way I see it, even if we may not end up using the product, the process is still incredibly valuable. Things like teaching cursive help children master a skill. They learn to practice over and over to make perfection. All this technology we use automatically makes many things perfect for us. How is that good for developing brains? How does that encourage growth? How does that foster the idea of learning for learning’s sake? How does that contribute to future generations of culturally literate populations?

I may not use cursive anymore, but those hours at a desk with a freshly sharpened pencil and a sheet of lined paper, repeating the curves and bends and flows of letters, was the beginning of a realization that I could train my hand to do better. And every time I sit down to create an illustration, or pipe a decoration onto a cake, or create something for someone I love, I know how to control my movements. More importantly, I know it is not always going to be perfect the first time. If I want a desirable product, I have to pay attention to my process.

That is also what I console myself with when I sit with my daughter, helping her remember each and every God-forsaken step of long division. Even that little awkward mathematical outcast, the remainder.

And it is why I spent my day in third grade as an attentive and enthusiastic student.  I wanted my daughter to feel like what she has been learning this year is valuable, even to someone who does not directly use all those lessons on a daily basis in her grown-up life. After all, it is much better to have a well-stocked reserve of information floating around in your brain, as Grace pointed out in her email, just in case.

Still, I am doing a happy dance that this is the last week of school before summer vacation. I need a homework break. Because you know fourth grade is going to pick up with fractions. Those little bastards are always ‘effing with me.

•••

By the way, my dad was the first to reply to Grace’s email with one sentence. And as is my dad’s way, his response spoke a simple, no-nonsense truth that could not be negated by even the girl who once justified that, even though we live in the center of the country, her biggest fear was getting her arm bitten off by a shark because she might one day live in Hawaii:

Grace,

You need to know long division in case your computer or calculator is not working.

Papa

Boom. *drops mic and walks off stage*

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26 Responses

  1. Couldn’t have said it better myself!

    An answer I’ve used to the “why do I need to learn this?” question is, “So you don’t look like a complete @$$ on national TV if you’re ever on one of those ‘People on the Street’ segments.”

  2. Cursive rules! . . . he typed.

  3. I’ve been writing cursive lately because I want my notes in a, ahem, notebook where I can flip through them and go, “Oh, yeah! That was a great idea!” rather than a computer where I have to freaking remember where EVERYTHING is!

    I have come to love long division since I teach it…a lot!

    • I am with you on the notebook. I jot all my ideas down on paper…never on the computer. You know, so years from now when we are famous authors they have something to auction off at Christie’s. Who would bid on a hard drive of random idea files?

      I’m sure I would love math a lot more if I was better at it.

  4. “stfu” looks sooo pretty there! Oh, and I still write in cursive when I write people letters. I wrote my nephew a couple of times a week when he was at Basic Training and I used cursive … but I gotta tell ya, it’ll cramp your hand until you get used to it again! (of course, maybe that was because the letters were 3 and 4 pages long. lol) Good response, Papa!

    • Sounds like someone needs to pump up those hand muscles…Hans and Franz style. That’s right. Retro SNL reference.

      I love that you still write letters! I confess, I don’t remember the last time I wrote one, aside from a thank you note. But that might also be because almost all of my family is local. I bet your nephew LOVED that!

  5. I write in print block letters (caps), because my handwriting sucks.
    But learning math develops logical skills.

    And grandpa is absolutely right. We rely too much on technology.

    • So true. It is amazing how paralyzed we can be when our gadgets are on the fritz.

      You know, that all caps thing seems to be very common among men. A good majority of the men I know write that way. I wonder if anyone has studied that or if there is some psychological explanation? Deep thoughts.

  6. When she goes on whatever Survivor episode ten years from now and they dish out 72 bananas to the contestants, she will immediately know how many she gets to eat in her share.

  7. Grandpa knows how to shut it down! I wish I could give a simple yet undeniable one sentence answer. I tend to be all wordy (I know you’re shocked) and my kids surely tune me out.

    Also, the cursive thing. I have actually heard that it fires up a part of your brain, that thoughts can be more connected when writing with fluid cursive vs print. I still do a lot of writing in notebooks if I’m some place I don’t want to lug my laptop. There is a difference to my writing flow and process when I write vs type. I think it is so sad and so wrong that a lot of schools are doing away with it…

    • I totally agree. I still hand-write so many things, including blog and story ideas. Especially with my children’s book, I did ALL the writing, rewriting, editing, etc. in a notebook. I didn’t actually type it into a computer until I felt it was close to a finished stage. More often than not, I still write grocery lists, even though I can jot that stuff down in my cell phone. There is just something about writing with pen and paper. But that is interesting stuff about cursive versus print. Maybe I should start using cursive again…although I will say my handwriting could probably be called a printing-cursive hybrid.

      And, girl, don’t I know about the wordy thing. I’m pretty sure I just demonstrated how wordy I am in the previous paragraph. And speaking of your words, I’m about to go head over to your latest post. I feel like it has been eons since I entertained myself with a little wordy Gretchen :)

  8. I relearned long division this year just to teach it to my third grader (thank you Khan Academy). I have been getting through life just fine without it, of course. But I hope it will come in handy now that I’ve refreshed my skills.

    I started practicing my cursive a few years ago so I could write letters to my husband’s grandmother who lives overseas. It just seemed like the most respectful way to keep in touch. I wavered on whether or not to teach my son as part of homeschool curriculum. Then my husband did an informal survey of students at the college campus and everyone he asked said they thought kids should still learn cursive. I’ve also read the same thing Gretchen mentioned about how writing in cursive allows the brain to process things differently.

    I remember when I was practicing cursive in middle school the teacher’s said it was because all our papers in high school would have to be in cursive and then when I got to high school all our papers had to be typed!

    • Ha! I am super impressed with your ability to home school. I don’t know that I would have enough faith in myself that my kids would get enough of a well-rounded education with me as their teacher for everything. It must take a lot of dedication…I think that’s amazing.

      And I love hearing that your husband took a survey of college kids and they all voted for cursive! That is very encouraging. I think we assume that generation and younger doesn’t have an appreciation for doing things “the long way.” I guess we shouldn’t underestimate them!

  9. Love. I am a big fan of cursive. Because one of these days we will all return to writing letters to one another with fountain pens. I just know that’s going to happen some day.. What I don’t know is where to buy a fountain pen, but I digress. We do need to focus on process, especially the process of becoming a well rounded human being.

  10. “After all, it is much better to have a well-stocked reserve of information floating around in your brain.” <—– SMART GIRL!

  11. […] and didn’t spend $100? Did she mean because I was pretty much the valedictorian when I had to play the student at my daughter’s “Day in Third Grade” (suck it, long division)? Did she mean because MetroTix bowed to my whims, leading to my […]

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