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Young, Gifted… and Stuck (Part 1) or how to support children with problems with maths, with help from Bob Marley and the Wailers and Marcia Griffiths

Date posted: Monday 10th June 2013

Bob Marley

Young, gifted and black!
We must begin to tell our young,
There’s a world waiting for you,
This is a quest that’s just begun.
When you feel really low,
Yeah, there’s a great truth you should know,
When you’re young, gifted and black
Your soul’s intact.

To Be Young Gifted and Black by Nina Simone & Weldon Irvine

You can get it if you really want,
But you must try, try and try,
You’ll succeed at last.

You Can Get It If You Really Want by Jimmy Cliff.

When I was 14 & 15 I had a fascination with all things pop and rock. Along with Jimi Hendrix and Bowie, by big favourite was reggae. Reggae in the early 70s, at least what we could hear on the radio in the UK, was all nicey nicey, happy go lucky beach music. Bob Marley had yet to happen; leading the way for the more politically conscious and heavy bands like Burning Spear, Steel Pulse and Black Uhuru. To Be Young Gifted and Black by Bob Andy and Marcia Griffiths was my favourite reggae song, and in a way became my anthem. I used to hum it all the time. I used to sing ‘young, gifted and stuck’ because that’s how I felt.

At that time it was becoming very clear to me that most of mathematics made absolutely no sense. I’d struggled with all things mathematical since I was nine, but it didn’t really bother me in primary school, because I was good at reading and spelling and no one seemed to notice. We had some terrible maths teachers in secondary school, so they were partly to blame for my lack of progress. But looking around during lessons I saw my friends understanding what was being taught, even though it was being taught very badly (Open your textbook at page 23, teacher taking the class through the worked example by talking and writing on the blackboard, then each pupil spending the rest of the lesson in silence, working your way through the textbook. “Jones, why haven’t you done anything? Get a move on! Look it’s, quite straightforward. We covered this last week. You must try harder. Why haven’t you finished your homework? It’s all wrong. Hold your hand out…” Whack!) Because everyone else was making sense of maths, I knew it was me that had the problem. I can still vividly recall sitting in class listening to the teacher talking and writing on the board, and it sounding as if I was hearing a foreign language. I wanted to cry.

It must have been obvious to the teachers that there was a problem, but I was just told to work and try harder. It’s true, that some people can get it if they really want, but you must try and try, and you will succeed at last, but teachers need to help you don’t naturally sense the logic or meaning of what you are being taught. Trigonometry was the last straw. We were being taught about ‘Cos, Sine and Tan’ and had ‘log books’. I made a big mistake. I asked the teacher to explain why we needed to learn about these things. “Because if you know this then it will be the difference between a pass and a fail in your ‘O’ Level. And that will mean the difference between you going to university or working as a dustman. Now can we get on, without any further stupid interruptions?”

Looking back, I can understand why children become ‘disaffected’. At the time I wanted to tell the teacher that he was a bleeping bleep. I did swear: to myself, that in the unlikely event that I ever became a teacher, I would be the best maths teacher I could be, and would begin by explaining why we need to learn maths, and to make it as interesting as possible. I cried inwardly and hummed ‘to be young gifted and stuck’ to myself and dreamed of meeting Marcia Griffiths. Being put through the ordeal of a daily hour-long maths lesson (double on Wednesday morning after three hours of maths homework on a Tuesday night) smashed my confidence. It also meant that physics meant no sense, to me it is ‘practical maths’ but unfortunately it was taught in exactly the same way.

Children having their self-confidence eroded in this way tend to react in different ways. From my experience, boys often ‘act out’, in the hope that they will be removed from the lessons. Others, often girls, ‘act in’ by blaming themselves. If you have an aptitude in other areas, e.g. reading and writing or performing, you can try and maintain your self-esteem by putting all your energies into these subjects. I put my talents to good use by memorising the lineups of bands and track listings on my favourite albums, and dreaming of one day writing for NME.

Sometimes I try and explain my ongoing maths difficulties to people who are naturally good at maths; e.g. Why I can’t do mental arithmetic, visualize problems, or understand trigonometry etc. They say things like, “Of course you can do it. It must be that you were badly taught and you lost all confidence. If only you were to try now, then it would make sense.” That is a variation on the theme of ‘If you work harder you will be able to do it.’ This is really not helpful. Anyone with dyslexia will tell you that the last thing you need to overcome your problems is to do ‘more of the same’: what you need is someone to acknowledge that there is a problem, and to offer you an alternative way of learning that helps you understand. Luckily people are beginning to recognise that dyscalculia, like dyslexia, really does exist, and you can do something about it.

Years later I was special needs coordinator in a middle school, and made it my business to identify as early as possible all those children who were struggling with maths. We set up a special maths group for the older children, and we began every lesson by explaining exactly why what they were learning was important, and what the key vocabulary meant. We did lots of fun activities; like teaching measurement by eating a metre of chocolate, walking a mile and running 100 metres. The children were able to go at their own pace, so they gradually learned to relax about the world of numbers, and lessons started to make sense. We set relevant homework, with realistic and achievable targets, and talked to the parents about what we were trying to achieve and how they could help. For some of the children their maths difficulties were part of wider additional learning needs, while others had suspected or confirmed dyslexia. However, there were also some who were doing well in other areas of learning, but had specific maths problems. We tried to unstick them all a bit, so they would have the confidence to try and try and try, ‘till they succeeded at last.

This brings me, in a roundabout way, to Bob Marley. I was one of the 20,000 people who went to see him at the Crystal Palace Bowl in June 1980. It was a memorable day. There was a lake full of filthy water in front of the stage, which the organisers reckoned would deter anyone from getting near the performers: negating the need for security. The first bit of excitement was the end of the set by The Q Tips, when the trumpeter threw his trumpet into the lake (their lead singer was one Paul Young, who later became a massive star). This provoked the first swim of the day, as a misguided soul tried to search for it.

Things later went badly wrong for Joe Jackson. He always fancied himself as an ‘artist’, even though his biggest hit was titled Is she really going out with him? There was a lot of trouble with the sound during his set, and Joe was getting annoyed. To relieve the tedium, about 30 people started to swim through the filthy water towards the stage. Several made it onto the plinth and started hurling duckweed and abuse at Joe Jackson. Joe completely lost his rag when what looked like a dead duck landed dangerously close to his keyboard. Hell hath no fury greater than an ‘artist’ scorned. Joe started swearing at the audience, who started cheering. Now that’s entertainment.

The I Threes with Marcia Griffiths: Young, gifted and black

The I Threes with Marcia Griffiths: Young, gifted and black

After that we were all geared up for some real music. Eventually it was announced that The Wailers’ three female vocalists, The I Threes, would do a short set. Now, I knew the names of all of the members of the Wailers (I still do). But to my shame I could only remember two of the I Threes: Rita Marley and Judy Mowatt. There were 2000 Rastafarians living in London in 1980 and most of them were at Crystal place on that day. I asked one of them to help me with my I Three problem. “Yah Man, give thanks and praise because I and I do believe that it is Marcia Griffiths.” Marcia Griffiths? The lady who had helped me through all my trials and tribulations with maths at school? Was she really breathing the same air as me? (Actually it had been difficult to breathe for some time as there was, for some unfathomable reason, a lot of smoke hanging over Crystal Palace.) For a few minutes I relived all the pain and humiliation of being made to feel useless, but then forgot about it and enjoyed a few hours of great music.

As you can see from the colour photo at the top of the post, a lot of people braved the poisoned waters to be near the great man and his great band. If you look closely you can see me. I’m the one wearing the hand-knitted tanktop.*

In the next post we will explore supporting children who are ‘young, gifted and stuck’ with literacy.

*Only joking.

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7 responses to “Young, Gifted… and Stuck (Part 1) or how to support children with problems with maths, with help from Bob Marley and the Wailers and Marcia Griffiths”

  1. Great article, really redolent of those lessons in days gone by. And maybe not so rare today. I would love to know what resources you find the most useful for maths learning in middle school, especially maths verbal problems (looking at the way the curriculum is to be shaped now, even more so). I work particularly with language impaired children so this is going to be a huge hurdle. Hilary

    • Michael Jones says:

      Thank you Hilary. We found that the best resources were the ones we made ourselves. I used to adapt the lessons that were being offered children of the same age, by making the language simpler and making my own practical examples that I knew the children would understand.
      I used to think of maths as a foreign language for the children, and drew inspiration from some really good textbooks that taught early KS3French: stories about teenagers and their families and daily lives.
      As long as the children are progressing in maths, then the ‘curriculum’ you are offering them is the right one.
      I hope that helps
      PS I don’t think that teachers can behave towards children now in the way that we were treated… Dyscalculia does exist!!

  2. tim dunkerley says:

    I think you must have gone to the same school as me, as I was taught maths and physics in exactly he same way.

    • Michael Jones says:

      Hi Tim
      I’m sorry to hear that. Many teachers used to be able to get away with just using a textbook, and blaming pupils if they didn’t understand. Did you do well at maths and physics despite the teachers? I just scraped the lowest grade possible in mayo the to enable me to go into higher education. It was a miracle! We had a cramming class a few months before the exam, led by an inspirational teacher who took us through everything step by step. He used to say,’this is really useful for life, so let’s do some very practical examples: you are buying a carpet for your granny’s lounge. The room is 25 feet by 20 feet and she has £30 to spend.’
      On other occasions he would say, ‘I know this is tricky. Let’s just learn it for the exam. They are called ‘quadratic equations’. There’s no need to spend time on what they are for, but if you can do them then you will get marks.’ Every student was totally focused in these lessons, as things were making sense. We really appreciated this teacher.
      As we shall see in the next post, there are many children in primary schools whose poor understanding of literacy gets missed until year 5/6 when suddenly SATs start to loom large. Suddenly they are involved in ‘cramming’activities, but this is not appropriate…
      Thankfully standards of teaching have improved greatly, and early support is widely available in primary schools.

  3. Heather Bridge says:

    Hello Michael
    I agree with what you say about the teaching of mathematics. Mathematics is a language and like all languages, it rests on children building an understanding of mathematical concepts and of the mathematical language that goes with those concepts.

    How can we help teachers be creative in their teaching so that children construct understanding of mathematical concepts and of mathematical language? Early Childhood teachers (who teach children up to the age of 8) know to use teaching approaches that give children time to explore mathematical concepts in play. These concepts are relevant to children because they are related to their own lives. For example, measuring ingredients in cooking enables children to explore weight and learn language connected to weight, building structures with blocks enables children to explore height, and breadth, and learn language connected to height and breadth and counting toy animals enables children to explore numbers and quantities and learn language related to numbers and quantities.

    To avoid children being “stuck” in later school years, teachers have to be brave and teach like early childhood teachers do. They must give children plenty of time and opportunities to build a solid understanding of mathematical concepts and learn the language of mathematics so they can use it confidently.

    The pressure that teachers currently face from learning standards and outcome-measured standardized attainment tests is that teaching can be narrowed and focused on the outcomes rather than on the processes that enable children to build mathematically fluency.

  4. Hi All,

    I agree with your points on teaching maths and the concept of it being similar to teaching a new language.

    I think you’re right too, Heather, that teachers of older children shouldn’t be scared to teach in ‘real-life’ circumstances. Every year I used to get my new intake of bottom set Year 5s (middle school) and we’d get right back to basics, going over the key skills through a messy mix of baking, ‘shopping’, model-making and, in some cases, rapping (not as smooth as Bob Marley’s reggae I’m afraid!)

    I did, however, have to bear in mind that not all teachers teach in this way and that at some point my students would have to learn to transfer the ‘concrete’ to the ‘abstract’. Ultimately they would be able to relate the ‘real-life’ examples to the more ‘foreign’ figures on the page.

    So, after a couple of terms of building confidence in key areas, I would teach the workbook activities alongside the ‘hands on’ lessons, to help the transition into the different teaching styles they’d come across!

    As with all things academic, there wasn’t a hard and fast rule, but it did ofetn manage to get the disaffected a little more interested – the messier or more transport related, the better with my young men I found!!

  5. moriel gidney says:

    Confidence and self esteem play such a big part in it all don’t they? Is it my imagination or does the primary position of PSED (personal social and emotional development) get sidelined almost as soon as they leave reception?
    I worked with a child who had ‘infant maths’ skills in Yr 6 but later everyone knew she had severe dyspraxia. Two of the basic things that made a difference to her were my writing out the sums so she was fresh to address them – after writing out columns of figures, she had had enough by then, and taping for her songs that concentrated on the end figures in tables. By the time she said ‘1×1= she had often forgotten what the first number was so we devised a system where she just held up her fingers and said the result of the table – hence for 4x she learnt a song 4,8,12,16 etc holding up her fingers so she could see where she was – it worked a treat.
    I have every sympathy with maths sufferers. I have a good brain that uses figures well now but in Yr 11 was told ‘You are obstreporous and pedantic’ by the maths teacher (who taught me physics too). I got my own back though. Having been made to complete the O level physics even though I had asked for extra maths with another teacher instead, I didn’t bother with the paper but wrote on it that there was no point me doing the paper as I had scored 4% in the Strangely I never heard about that.
    PS I had extra coaching for a term to retake my o level maths and the tutor told my mum she couldn’t work out what the problem had been – I knew – the maths teacher and I didn’t like each other!

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