Kill the Calculator

Courtesy of Phillip A. Lombardi
Phillip A. Lombardi and daughter, Renée,

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, 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:, @PhillipALombard, and

Categories: Guest Bloggers, School