42: The Power of the Basics

42: The Power of the Basics

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers

The Power of the Basics

The beginning is the most important part of the work.

~Plato

His name was Eduardo. He was a student in my eighth grade math class. Other kids teased him constantly, mocking his inability to do simple things like add and subtract or tie his shoes. For as long as he or his mother could remember, he always failed every subject.

One day in class, I heard a student tell Eduardo, “You are so dumb, you don’t even know how to tell time!” Laughter bounced off the concrete walls.

As Eduardo shrank in his seat, I walked over to him and quietly asked if that was true. He shrugged. It was a heartbreaking, defeated kind of shrug, loaded with meaning. I then asked him the most simple, yet profound, question a teacher can ask: “Why?”

“I don’t know,” he said, with another shrug as he sank lower behind his desk.

I pressed him for an answer.

Finally, he exclaimed, “Nobody ever taught me!”

“What about your parents?” I asked.

“Nope.” Shrug.

I turned and got the class started on an assignment. Then, I took the clock off the wall, sat down next to Eduardo, and quietly explained how it worked. Within ten minutes, Eduardo knew how to tell time.

Nobody had ever taken the ten minutes to show him how a clock worked. Many had simply dismissed him as “unable to learn.” He could learn. After that day, his confidence began to increase. He even became interested in learning, because he knew he could. He began doing some of his homework and started performing better on tests.

Throughout my teaching career, I’ve taught math to kids of all kinds. I’ve taught the quadratic formula to highly advanced sixth graders, and I’ve taught high school students who were struggling to pass the high school exit exam.

And throughout it all, I’ve come to know that the most successful students have one thing in common: they’ve mastered the basics.

Sometimes, we place so much emphasis on collaboration that we overlook teaching students to look someone in the eye while shaking their hand. Sometimes, we place so much emphasis on critical thinking that we forget to make sure students can actually read. I often think of legendary basketball coach John Wooden who, upon meeting his newest class of college recruits each year, would first spend considerable time teaching them how to properly lace up their sneakers. Improperly laced sneakers lead to blisters, and blisters can lead to a missed shot when the game is on the line. The basics.

For years, I watched kids struggle in my Algebra class, having never mastered the basics. In Algebra, the missed basic usually means the times tables. The past several years, I’ve traveled the country speaking, writing and coaching educators, and I always ask the teachers their biggest challenge in teaching math. “So many students don’t know their times tables,” they’ve told me.

I’ve thought about this a lot. Beneath all the complexities of education and learning, curriculum and policy lies one thing — the importance of the basics. Just as reading is the basic, critical foundation to succeed in writing and language arts, knowing the times tables is the basic, critical foundation to succeeding in math beyond elementary school. I tossed and turned at night for many months thinking about how amazing it would be if all kids could learn their times tables. If I could help them do this, in an engaging way. It became my new mission, and one I embarked on with a passion.

I created an interactive, online program to help every kid master his or her times tables, without the stress. I combined my own teaching (on video), my own music (times-table raps, to be exact), cutting-edge technology, and a few bad jokes, to create a program that is actually accomplishing this simple, yet profound, mission. Now, kids all over the world are using the program to master this basic skill, so they can grow more confident in math, and in life.

And to think it all started with an eighth grader named Eduardo, a shoulder shrug, and a clock.

~Alex Kajitani

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