Math Education

About a month ago, the older girls came home with a failing grade on their math test.   Math isn’t their strength, but they haven’t done this badly before.  We had a new math teacher, as the previous one left without notice to take a good job.  I asked the girls, “what went wrong?”  If they had done “medium” I would have assumed they may not have studied enough, but all failing meant something else was wrong.  “They changed the numbers,” one of the girls told me.  “The numbers were different from the ones we studied.”  I looked at the teacher.  Yes, she had been working from the question bank books and didn’t routinely change numbers.  So if a girl got the SAME problem correctly over and over, she was considered taught.  So I told the teacher she had to change numbers. 

This was not the first time this has come up.  I’ve insisted a lot of math teachers do this, but I forget when a new one starts.  I thought we were OK.   The girls are in Bengali Medium school so all their work is in Bengali, including the numbers.  I’m able to do the numbers but can’t read the problems.  I’ve been helping them with fractions also.  Two years ago I found wonderful fraction sheets, strips, online and printed out worksheets.  At that time I gave them to the math teacher, and she gave them to the girls for artwork.  I asked if she told them it was about fractions.  No, she was planning to in the future. 

Last night the girls asked for some help with math.  We got through the first three problems, with them trying to translate, and my knowing the numbers.  Then we came to a problem:  a field has an area of 360 sq. meters.  How many meters on each side?  The girls all agreed the answer was 90 meters.  I went over the Bengali with them, and yes they were sure the 360 was SQ. meters.  So I showed them that the area would then be 8100 sq.m.  They insisted the Bengali asked for area, not length.  So then I tried to figure the square root of 360 and went to the internet to refresh myself and then figured since 3600 was a perfect square, maybe the teacher left off a “0” in the problem.  Or, she made the error in saying it was area, not length of perimeter.

Today I asked the teacher.  I put the problem up and she insisted the answer was 90.  It was clear that even in Bengali (I had a translator with me) she was confused about area and length.  Finally after going over length and area with her I asked if she understood what she had done wrong.  She told me, “Yes, I should not have changed the number given in the question bank.”  Namely she doesn’t know how to do the math.

I pay all teachers and I pay well.   But I can’t really “vet” them because of the language.  The girls have been very happy with her, probably because she never yells at them, and always answers their questions and helps them with numbers.  This has been a chronic problem, teachers who just give answers.  The teachers in school do the same thing.  And in the government school they were in earlier, teachers even give answers during exams.

We have a system of “tuition” here where the school teachers (for fees) teach the same students at night that they have in school.  If a child is getting tuition from a school teacher, then the child will also be given advance information of what is on the exam.  We were in the system briefly and we were paying a math teacher for after-school teaching but the principal intervened and said our four could not be taught there.  I’ve written about this before.

Our solution is that we will move the girls to English medium, a hard task but necessary at this point.  We will have a four-month period in which to do intensive teaching here.  I’m putting together a team.  The girls in special education have been taught in English since the beginning.  I did this because I wanted to be able to bring in teachers from outside West Bengal, and I also wanted to be able to know exactly what was going on with them and their teaching.  There are some computer programs in Bengali but they were made proprietary and require their own switches which are no longer being made. 

I desperately need help here.  It’s a learning process.  I simply can’t find the kind of committment I’ve known elsewhere in teaching.  Special educators do not have to be college graduates or teachers before taking a course and becoming certified.  And they are products of the educational system where you stick with the question bank.  I sold what I had in the US, and with my retirement money came here to take care of children no one wanted and no one considered worthy of education.  The problem isn’t funds; it’s people, skills, curiosity, belief in the power of caring and teaching.

Thanks for your interest in listening.  I have this crazy idea that orphans are as deserving as any other of our children. 

Oh, the math teacher?  She will leave in two weeks when exams are over, and in the meantime she is teaching history and geography.

Rani is pointing to the computer. She is being taught by one of our older girls.

Ganga going to school with the big girls. Bornali is smart but does NOT like to study! She tolerates it because she likes pleasing her teachers.

Sonali has little vision, but manages to organize people to meet her needs (wishes) quite well.


Bornali is smart but does NOT like to study! She tolerates it because she likes pleasing her teachers.

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October 2011
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