Today I had a humbling experience in the classroom. I was a substitute teacher for a fourth grade class. Their assignment was to do a page of double digit multiplication problems. The teacher left instructions that there were some students who were having difficulty with the concept. She also said that the students could group themselves in pairs to do the work. So I announced the assignment.
Immediately the students got up and began milling around the room, changing seats in a flurry of excitement. I watched and gently herded students, getting them situated. Then I tried to locate where the students were who were having difficulty understanding. I read their names out loud, noted where they were sitting, and then said I would be checking in on them to help. Then I began the rounds. After helping two girls in the back, I noticed a disturbance in the middle of the room. Three girls were tossing their heads and talking angrily. I went over and asked what was the matter.
“Luella’s poking me,” said one irate student. I looked at Luella. She had a defiant air about her.
To diffuse the conflict, I changed the subject and asked her, “Have you started the math paper?”
“No,” she said sullenly.
“Do you understand it?” I asked, more quietly.
“No,” she admitted.
“Here, let me help you,” I said. And we began going through the extremely complicated steps it takes to do a double digit multiplication problem It became quickly apparent to me that Luella didn’t know her multiplication facts. She painstakingly looked up 8 X 7 on a multiplication chart her teacher had thoughtfully taped to the front of her math notebook. I watched as she wrote the numbers sloppily on her paper.
“No,” I said. In math, you have to be very neat. You have to line up the digits right underneath each other, like this.” I erased her efforts and wrote the numbers in correctly. Luella shrugged her shoulders and looked down. Just then, another student across the room raised his hand, and I left Luella to go help him.
“She doesn’t really want my help anyway,” I thought. “And, I don’t like her attitude.”
I moved around the classroom assisting about six different students, realizing how tortuous it could be to learn which two numbers you multiply first, then second, and then how you have to put a place-holder zero in the second line, then you multiply the next two digits and the next two digits, carrying the tens digit over and adding it. Whew! So much work for one answer!
Thankfully, the time for math ended, and Luella and some others got up to go back to their homeroom classes. Recess came, then Luella came back to our class.
The other students were working on a drama project, using their laptop computers. Luella was just sitting there.
“Why aren’t you doing something?” I asked.
“I don’t do that assignment,” she explained. “I’m just in here for science.” Then I realized, after looking at the class schedule on the board, that it was officially science time, but that the teacher had decided to have her homeroom students work on another assignment and she had possibly forgotten that Luella would have nothing to do. Then I had a flash. Why not have Luella work some more on her math paper? I had glanced through the turned in papers and couldn’t find hers.
“Where is your math paper?” I asked.
“Oh, I put it in my backpack to take home to work on,” she answered.
“Well, go get it and we can work on it now,” I countered.
“I don’t know if my teacher will let me do that,” she said.
Boy, she’s really trying to get out of this, I thought.
“Go to your class and get the paper and come back,” I demanded firmly.
So Luella left the classroom. She was gone for a long time. I began to wonder if she would come back at all. Maybe she decided to just stay in her classroom and stay away from that crazy substitute trying to make her work! I even asked one other student whose class she was in, so I could call the teacher and explain how I wanted Luella to bring her work back to me. But then I thought, You’re making too big a deal out of this. Just drop it.
The classroom door opened, and there was Luella. She walked in and pulled out a piece of paper from her pocket and unfolded it.
“Here’s the math paper,” she said.
“Great!” I said, enthusiastically. “Have a seat over here and we can get to work.”
Once again, I tried to explain the procedure. But then I noticed something strange. Luella kept transposing the numbers. When I said “56” she wrote “65”. I said, “No, you wrote those backwards. It should look like this: 56” She got a knowing look in her eyes and said, “I switch things all the time. I’m getting tutoring for it.”
Light dawned on me. Luella was dyslexic! I suddenly was in awe, for this was the first time I had encountered a student who struggled with this, and I was struck with how insurmountable the task of putting digits in the right order and columns for a multiplication problem must be for someone whose brain keeps flipping the numbers!
I touched her on the shoulder and said, “You are doing a great job. It will come to you. Thank you for working with me.”
Her face cleared and she flashed a smile. She bent over her paper and carefully wrote “56” in tiny script. “Now what do I multiply next?”
We walked through three problems before class was over. Each time, she hesitated a little less. When she walked towards the door, she turned and said, “Don’t worry. I’ll get it.”
“I know you will,” I replied.
Ashamed, I thought how I had judged that she was a defiant student just trying to get out of work.
“Lord, help me in my presumptions,” I prayed. “And thank you for Luella.”