Patch’s Multiplication

Third grade means memorizing multiplication tables. This has been true since my own schooling. It was true for my three older kids. Now it is true for Patch. This particular scholastic challenge has been hard for him. He’s in a more academic program than my other kids were at his age. The measurement of this skill is very results-focused, five-minute tests of 80 problems each. Patch’s teacher offered a new set of markers as a prize for anyone who makes their way to 12s before Christmas break. Unfortunately Patch got stuck at threes for several tests in a row. He lost confidence and began to feel bad about himself and about school. He alternately declared that markers didn’t matter and cried because he didn’t believe he could earn them.

Presented with this situation, I had several choices:
1. Confront Patch’s teacher about her expectations, be angry with the requirements that were making my son feel sad and reject the system that imposed them.
2. Negotiate with Patch’s teacher to lower the bar so that he didn’t have to struggle so hard.
3. Step up my game and Patch’s practice to help him pass the requirements.

A conference with Patch’s teacher resulted in a combination of two and three. She would give him a little bit of extra time and a few extra mistakes allowed. I would work with him every day to help him be prepared.

We start with flash cards. This is a fairly standard method for teaching multiplication facts to kids. As I held up cards for Patch and he sometimes struggled for answers, I pondered how complex this seemingly simple task actually is. Patch looks at a card and his visual centers interpret the reflected light into an image. The language center of his brain translates that image into symbols which have concepts attached. Patch then has to access his memory to find the correct answer to go with the presented symbols. This memory then has to be translated into words so that Patch can speak the answer. All of this must occur in mere seconds in order to get through 80 problems.

I realized that we were practicing verbal answers, but that the test was written. We needed to be practicing that final translation step both written and spoken. I devised a writing game where instead of answering out loud, Patch wrote the answers on a white board. Then we printed out math facts practice sheets so he could take practice tests. I sat next to him as he wrote, glancing from timer to his pencil. Patch cruised along smoothly until the moment when his brain did not instantly supply an answer. Patch shifted in his seat, rubbed his eye, tapped his pencil. It was as if he was attempting to jog loose the memory by physical action. Sometimes these fidgets led to longer distractions. I once watched him spend a full minute with his pencil poised over a single problem because his mind went off on some tangent of thought.

It was so very tempting to switch to the angry option. We worked and Patch struggled. Threes forever. In the middle of one practice, Patch declared he hated school. My heart sank. I fumed at the seeming arbitrary measure of 80 problems in five minutes. I groused a bit to Howard outside of Patch’s hearing and he pointed out that the speed of recall was in indicator that the facts were stored in a permanent and easily accessible memory location. This was the point of memorizing the problems at all. I swallowed my grumbles and faced the next practice session.

It was that next practice session when everything clicked. Patch, who had routinely only been completing 40-70 problems in five minutes, sat down and rocketed through 80 in under four. “Wow!” I said and gave him a high five.
Patch smiled back at me. “I just found the right way to set my brain. I just told myself I could do it.”

Far more important than storing math facts in memory, Patch learned how to focus his mind. Someday there will be something he wants very much and getting it will be easier because he knows how to focus and persevere. The pattern continued through fours, fives, and sixes. We practice, practice, practice, it seems impossible and then click. It is easy. But even during the impossible-seeming parts we know that it will eventually work. Patch still does not rejoice when I declare practice time, but he heads off to school happy each day because he knows he can succeed even when the task is difficult.