The girls don’t know math. They can “do problems” but they lack an understanding of math concepts, values, units, functionality. They have learned how to add, subtract, multiply and divide but have no idea why. I have been literally shot down by teacher after teacher because I did not believe the girls knew what they were doing.

I’m writing more about what it’s been like, the white foreigner questioning Bengali methods. In our first year the teacher told me one day, “they can count to 50. They know 50.” But in the evening when I played a game of counting candies, they could not tell me how much each had (everyone less than 20) nor could they tell me who had more or less other than by visual swipe. Numbers were a song you sang while jumping rope. The school also insisted the girls were fine. And of course the girls were sure they were fine since everyone except me told them how well they were doing. Reasons in retrospect? People believed this was what I wanted to hear. No one believe orphans could do better anyway. Teachers themselves didn’t know math. I was a foreigner, and not even a “teacher” in their eyes.

In the second year I wanted the girls to write margins in the math books. I wanted a 1 cm margin. I wanted them to get used to measurement, and the order of a math page. The math teacher said she only knew one way though, which was to make the margin the width of the ruler. She didn’t know how to measure 1 cm. Of course the children sided with the teacher as that way was easier.

Recently the girls did poorly on an exam at school. I asked them why as they all did badly. Finally someone told me, “They changed the numbers.” It seems our teacher had only used one question to teach each example or each type of problem. So the girls were perfect at memorizing that one problem. But the school used different numbers. The teacher was sitting right there and she was surprised that she was supposed to “change the numbers.” A week later the girls came to me in the evening with a problem they couldn’t understand. I worked and worked on it, but it made no sense. I concluded the teacher had made a mistake in writing it. The next day I asked her. Actually she had changed the numbers but didn’t understand that she then had to change other factors. Namely she didn’t know the math. I went through it a number of times and then asked if she knew where she had gone off. She said, “Yes, I shouldn’t have changed the numbers.” It’s endemic.

Well, it’s all changing now. With the shift to English medium I’m involved in everything. So I started where I think we need to start, with basic concepts. I went to the market to find supplies. I wanted it to be interesting, attractive. I bought buttons in nine colors… and they can represent different values over time, or even objects… working on abstraction. I bought plastic plates to serve as trays and small dishes to hold the buttons. And then we began. The plate above has the key to values. Then I served out buttons, like I would serve desserts, and they loved it. I needed to change the atmosphere of learning.

The girls started by counting the buttons, and then adding. Then I asked them how else they might find the number. Blank stares. Then I asked how they might use multiplication to find out. So some wrote out the multiplication formula and then added up the numbers to get the product. They were trying. And then for several of them it clicked!

I’m the new math teacher, looking for clicks, looking for math epiphanies. New beginnings, every day. That’s what I say to the girls every morning, “New Day.” It means we put away all the troubles of the day before and we start afresh.

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