My Only Memory of First Grade

The children are back in school, and this seems to be a good opportunity to share the only memory I have from first grade.

Our teacher stood in front of the classroom next to the blackboard (you already know this is not going to end happily) and introduced the concept of addition.

“Look, children” she said, scribbling numbers. “5 + 4 is 9.  Let’s do another one. 7 +2 is 9.  How about one more? 6 + 3 is 9.”  She then handed out worksheets with a smile, saying sweetly, “Now it’s your turn.”

I looked at the sheet of 30 equations, wondering if I had been placed in a remedial classroom.  I couldn’t believe we actually had to practice what were just shown.  Nevertheless, I went straight to work. 1 + 2? The answer was obvious. 9.

3 + 4?  I wrote it again.  9.

8 + 2?  9!!!

9. 9. 9. 9. 9. 9. 9. 9. 9. 9. 9. 9. 9. 9. 9. 9. 9. 9. 9. 9. 9. 9. 9. 9. 9. 9. 9. 9. 9. 9. 9. 9. 9. 9. 9. 9.

I raced through my worksheet in less than a minute, hoping I’d be the first to finish.  I looked up.

First place!

The teacher seemed a bit mystified as to why I was looking at her with a smile.  I scanned the rest of the room.  My poor classmates struggled terribly with the exercise, erasing, using fingers, scratching heads, looking on their neighbor’s papers.

Really?  The answer is 9!

At that moment, based on the evidence before me, I concluded I must be a genius.

This went on for about fifteen minutes.  Finally(!) the teacher asked everyone to stop working.  “Let’s look at the first problem.  1 + 2.  Anyone?”

Peggy raised her hand, full of confidence.


“3,” she said.

“3!” I giggled to myself.

“Correct,” said my teacher.

At that point, all the blood drained out of my head.  The next quiz I remember were the SAT’s. All academic studies in between are now a blur.

This concludes my story.  What are the lessons?

First, in Montessori we use concrete materials.  A child sees why 5 + 4 is 9, and why 2 + 1 is 3.

Second, Montessori lessons are given in small groups, very often consisting of only two to six children.

Third, lessons are given in three “periods”, which allows a teacher to present a new lesson and immediately gage if a child understands.

Then, and only then, do children begin to practice the work on their own.  After all, why set a young child up to fail? Little do we realize the long lasting ramifications of teaching incorrectly.

My first grade memory makes a lot of people laugh, and I find it funny now, too.  However, back then, it was absolutely terrifying.  And the proof of that terror is that it remains my only instructional memory of first grade.   And it is also true, that tests for me thereafter were extremely nerve racking.  Those deep emotional memories from our youth seem to be hardwired into our beings.

Oh, I turned out okay.  But the question I always ask parents is this:  How much better would I have been with Montessori education?

How much better would you have been?

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