Kill the Calculator
It’s that time of year again. During second semester, my teenage daughter runs out of steam in one — or more — of her subjects. As middle school students approach the end of the school year, they must demonstrate proficiency and build on what they’ve supposedly learned.
I watch as Renée struggles with her algebra, trying to see how I can help. Like some alien parasite, her expensive calculator — which can solve and graph equations — has taken control of her brain. Resembling a real-life George Jetson, whose job requires repeatedly pushing a single button all day, the only thing my daughter brings to the table is a finger with which she mindlessly and disinterestedly pokes the calculator’s keys.
“This doesn’t look right. Did you check your work?”
My child replies, “I don’t know how.”
I suggest, “Let’s go through it step-by-step.”
Renée grabs the calculator, starts clicking, and gets the correct answer. “I must have typed it in wrong.”
“We can fix that.” I smile and place the offending machine out of reach.
She panics, “I need it. We’re supposed to use this type of calculator.”
I do recall the parent-teacher conference where we were given directions to the glass case containing this highly-talented calculator. But I reply, “Not for this problem. You can divide 10 by 2 and add 17 in your head — faster than your hand could even reach the calculator.”
Afterwards, I ask my wife why Renée doesn’t remember her basic algebra. She explains that for high-performing seventh graders, the school offers only Algebra for High School Credit. The prerequisite course, Eighth Grade Algebra, just isn’t available to seventh graders.
Now I understand the problem — although the school’s policies just don’t add up. We decide that I’ll get our child back on track with the K12 education website’s algebra course. Renée agrees; it’s not that my daughter loves math, but she’s stubborn when overcoming senseless hurdles erected by others.
An important aid for teaching at home, K12.com has us working as a team. I joke about a silly animation. We roll our eyes when the obvious is stated once too often. And we cheer when our favorite online tutor, Mr. Thomas, returns after a too-long hiatus. But she appreciates my help. My daughter now believes me when I tell her that it’s easier—and more valuable — to understand than to memorize.
She’s making progress. As we listen to a lesson, I pause it and step her through some tricks, using what she’s just learned to do mental multiplication quickly and easily. She’s surprisingly receptive of my advice. Better yet, I catch my usually quick-and-dirty teen voluntarily checking and correcting her answers.
Practicing her new skills, Renée has been doing long division — successfully — for several problems. “Here,” I offer her a $4 calculator, “that type of drudgery should be off-loaded to a machine.”
Phillip A. Lombardi writes about his misadventures as a veteran parent of teens. On social media: facebook.com/IrritateParents, @PhillipALombard, and linkedin.com/in/phillipalombardi.