Just Keep Drilling Her

In 1997 I was a music teacher in a Catholic school just outside of Washington, DC. The music closet, my desk and our music classes were all located in the multipurpose room. “Multipurpose” meant that this space also served as the indoor gym, the art room, the church hall, the school hall, and the aftercare room. During aftercare, the students would get a snack, then some playtime, then have homework time. It was during homework time that some students, not understanding that I was not part of the aftercare staff, would come up to my desk and ask for help with their homework.

Unless I was really pressed for time, I found it a joy to help them. I was fascinated by the puzzle of how to help these developing minds grasp the concepts which would allow them to do their work. Drawing on my own experiences as a student and a parent, and with a new awareness of Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence (MI) theory (thanks to Sister Catherine, the forward-thinking principle), I often explored how to use movement in the service of teaching and learning. The aftercare supervisor eventually suggested that I become part of their staff as an official aftercare tutor.

One of my first assignments as a tutor was to work with a third grader who was having great difficulty with multiplication. The well-meaning supervisor gave me a box of flash cards and said, ”Just keep drilling her until she gets it.” I immediately experienced a sinking, twisting feeling in the pit of my stomach–a body memory, a kinesthetic message from my own past, and I knew deep inside of me that this was not going to work. The painful memory of being drilled with flash cards flooded my entire system. I had never been able to learn my multiplication tables, despite hours and years of flash cards and teachers telling me that I had no excuse for not being able to memorize them.

If this student was anything like me, I knew that no amount of drilling could help her. It had been decades since I had been in grammar school, but the teaching methods still seemed to have no recognition of that fact that although a certain percentage of students seem to be able to memorize such material sufficiently to pass a test by using the flash card approach, some, like me, simply never could. I felt like I had to find a solution for this child or she would certainly be doomed to the same pain I had gone through. The pain that, I realized in that moment, I was still carrying.

Beginning with that student, I developed, over the following years, a method of teaching math to learners who do not respond well to the conventional methods. The foundation of the method is the idea that in order to do any work with numbers, beginning with addition and multiplication, one first must have an internalized, experienced-based understanding of what the numbers actually are. They are not the glyphs, not, as I tell my students, the squiggly lines. The numbers are values, amounts, and, as my friend Edie says, “they have to feel them in their bones.”