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  • Writer's pictureSusan Fleming Morgans

On the Right Track

If one train left the station at 2:02 p.m. going 70 mph and the other train left the station at 2:25 going 95 mph, which train would arrive first in Omaha, 120 miles away—and when? Oh, how I hated math and those seemingly irrelevant word problems. In junior high, I was not about to take a train anywhere, let alone to Omaha, so why was the point? Still don’t know. It’s why I get a kick out of the Facebook meme where a middle aged woman muses, “Gee, one more day and I didn’t need Algebra.”

I do know that the Boxer Rebellion took place in China in 1900. Don’t ask me why it happened or how it changed the world, however. Like the word problems, no teacher explained.

And how about those chemistry experiments where the “mad professor” blew up concoctions in the front of the room? Or the periodic chart we memorized without learning about most of the elements. What was that all about?

The value of reading short stories, dissecting a frog or developing a musical repertoire was more obvious to me but perhaps not for everyone. So when I became an English teacher, I tried to explain why the assignments were worthwhile. Shakespeare was the toughest. Many of the girls liked Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet, but I never met a 9th grade boy who embraced Shakespeare (or admitted it). This was the best I could do: “What if some day your boss invites you to see Midsummer Night’s Dream or Othello and you come off like an ignoramus because you never read Shakespeare? You might not get a promotion.” Wonder if that ever happened to any of my reluctant readers?

I never met a 9th grade boy who liked Romeo and Juliet.

Last month, our 12-year-old grandson invited us to follow his schedule on Grandparents Day. (I"m not saying where, because I hope it's Everyschool.) I was thrilled to observe that all the lessons related to something fun or practical the kids might do in real life. The computer science teacher gave a few instructions and then roamed the room trouble-shooting, as the kids created puzzles on their monitors, devising colorful pieces that had to fit together perfectly.

In computer science, they had fun creating puzzles.

The social studies teacher used the large screen at the front of the room to review the differences among many East and West African countries they had studied as well different sorts of slavery. Then she made a game out of identifying the countries and spelling the names correctly. These kids won’t ignore news stories as I sometimes do because I can only locate countries such as Zambia, Zimbabwe, Chad and Rwanda by their colonial names.

The social studies teacher turned a review of African countries into a contest.

The science teacher showed the kids how to track earthquakes and volcanoes on their computers—that day, there were 18 such events in the world—with the grandparents sharing personal experiences of natural disasters from Haiti to New Zealand to California. Science was fun, but math (yes, I said math) was the best. The teacher passed out a USDA chart with food items and their nutritional values and then challenged each kid to create a healthy meal with 2 ounces of grains, 1/2 cup of vegetables, 1/2 cup of fruit and 2 ounces of lean meat. The meal could have no more than 800 calories and no more than 35 percent total fat. If the meal they planned didn’t meet the specs, they needed to either add calories or decrease fat.

Our sixth grader had no fewer than five grandparents helping him with his cool math exercise.

The grandparents were encouraged to help the kids, and although the task was challenging, the exercise was relevant—I even brought home the work sheet with the list of food items and their nutritional values.

I plan to use the worksheet to study healthy meal planning and improve my still sorry math skills the next time I take a train race to Omaha. Even though I hated those word problems, I sure hope my locomotive wins!.

On my next train race to Omaha, I'll study math and improve my nutrition. Then I'll look good in a tank top.


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