A few days out of the week I volunteer at an elementary school in Southwest Atlanta. It’s different from the area where I grew up and went to school in almost every way I could imagine — student demographic, parental involvement, median family income, housing situations, etc. Needless to say, over the past few months I’ve learned quite a lot from the kids and the teachers. In fact, probably more than they’ve learned from me.
Yesterday, I had a chance to work with a fifth grader; we’ll call him Bobby. He is struggling in a lot of areas — reading comprehension and math primarily — and is definitely not on par with his grade level, and is nowhere near ready to enter middle school in the fall.
That morning, our focus was math. Me and math have never been the best of friends. I understood it and had little problem doing it, but it was by far my least favorite subject. So, when the teacher said multiplication and simplifying fractions, I couldn’t help but groan a little on the inside. But, I didn’t let it show.
Let me pause right here to say this: while I consider myself to be a teacher, and in fact enjoy teaching new things to new people, I have zero experience with elementary school kids. Part of the reason I began volunteering was to gain experience in that area. I’m used to working with adults. They’re easier for me to deal with because I more readily understand their perspectives and mindset. Not so much with kids. So, going into this I wasn’t sure what in the world I was going to do.
We went into a room where we could have some peace and quiet and I found some flashcards to work with. After a few minutes of seeing him struggle with the most basic equations, I could see this approach wasn’t working; we needed to shift gears and try a new approach.
Glancing around the room, I spotted some colored blocks that could be linked together. I remembered a conversation I had just the other day with a friend who used to teach Kindergarten. She told me that she found it more effective if the kids had something to touch and hold on to as she taught the lesson (e.g., if they’re talking about adding, giving them blocks to add). I thought the same thing could work here.
We began working with the cubes and grouping them into rows and columns and I explained how multiplication was really just grouping sets of numbers together. The concept seemed to land a little better in his mind. As we worked through a few problems, and I corrected a few errors, he appeared to be grasping the idea clearly. On the inside, I patted myself on the back for taking a different approach that seemed to have gained a better result — one that Bobby would hopefully use in the future.
As I was walking back to the train station, a thought popped into my head: It’s easy to get stuck in tradition. Sometimes we get so stuck in doing things the way they’ve always been done that we miss the opportunity to think outside the box. We often overlook the opportunity to be innovative and use our creativity to find a new, betters ways that we hadn’t previously tried.
It’s easy to get married to the process, but often in life, the results are worth more than the process. Don’t get me wrong, there are certain tried and true methods that work time and time again, and, are in fact necessary for our development. But don’t be afraid to think about other ways to get where you need to be. If you notice that one road is stagnant, try something else. You might be surprised at the progress you’ll see when you simply change your approach.
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