January 07, 2021


1st Grade at Home: Reading and Math Skills—A Parent’s Guide with Lessons & Activities to Support Your Child’s Learning. By the Staff of The Princeton Review. Princeton Review/PenguinRandomHouse. $12.99.

     Never let it be said that even the most destabilizing events can fully smother the American entrepreneurial spirit. There is innovation to be channeled out there even in the midst of a pandemic that has upended the work and home lives of millions upon millions of people. And that definitely includes children, who have had to relearn the basics of getting an education – and parents, who have had to relearn, or learn for the first time, the basics of providing an education.

     It is difficult to say on whom these dislocations and depredations have been harder. Back in the 1960s, mathematician and musical satirist Tom Lehrer wrote and sang a paean to what was then called “new math,” empathizing with parents trying to help their kids do homework without ever have studied the subject themselves: “Hooray for new math, new math: It won't do you a bit of good to review math. It's so simple, so very simple, that only a child can do it!” Extend that sentiment to just about every subject taught in school today and you have a fair approximation of how parents, abruptly thrust into the role of teachers, have every right to feel.

     To the rescue come the entrepreneurial types at The Princeton Review, an organization best known for its very thick, data-driven college guides. Why not use the skills honed in producing those guides to create educational books that parents can use to pull themselves and their children through, say, first grade? And lo and behold, there arises 1st Grade at Home: Reading and Math Skills (plus similar entries for second, third and fourth grades). This is not “new math” in the 1960s sense but new math – and reading – in the 21st-century-pandemic sense. It is intended to transform parents into carefully guided substitute teachers who can take their kids, step by step, through the same kind of learning that children would be getting in classrooms if it were not for lockdowns, lockouts, cutbacks, illness, fear of illness – well, the sorry litany goes on, but the feeling of being deluged by impossible demands where education is concerned does not have to persist for families using these books.

     1st Grade at Home tackles the two subjects of its title in a careful, well-organized fashion. The reading section begins with sound identification and pronunciation, the math section with simple counting exercises. The reading section eventually builds to story creation and interpretation, including visualization through drawing of the primary elements in a story. The math section eventually leads to charting and graphing activities. Along the way, the book takes parents step by small step through specific ways to present material, using items that will be easily found in most homes: pencil, pen, crayons, glue, note cards, paper, mini elbow macaroni – mini elbow macaroni? Yes: in addition to the expected teaching materials that parents likely remember from their own schooling, 1st Grade at Home makes lessons interesting by including such elements as old photos, popsicle sticks, modeling clay, pennies, board games, pretzel sticks, a muffin pan, and more. “Interesting” may fall short of “fascinating,” though, and little comments throughout the book – made to look like taped notes – remind parents about what it is like to be a first-grader. “First graders tire easily,” says one cautionary reminder. “Don’t try to do all of these activities at once.” Another says, “First graders can be moody. Sometimes they are not in the mood to do anything. If you find your child acting moody, don’t force him or her to do something. …You don’t want your child to associate learning activities with negative feelings.”

     There are direct warnings for parents, too, in the form of sections labeled “Watch Out!” There are a lot of those: one two-page spread early in the book contains three of them, and only a single section that is not called “Watch Out!” Parents may be forgiven for feeling somewhat overburdened by all the things to watch out for, in addition to the more-positive material covered in sections called “Checking In” and “What to Know.” Still, the book’s guidance is measured and its topics well-arranged – and the suggested timings for specific activities help provide a sense of pacing as well as structure. Some of the activities are very specific indeed, in sections called “Jump Right In!” These are not unlike school handouts: “Choose the word that completes the compound word,” or “Read aloud all the numbers in the picture below. …Then, color [using the color to which each number corresponds].”

     It does help to remember that teaching is as much an art as a science, and the creation of books that help people teach is an art, too. Guidance can go only so far. To cite one example among many, 1st Grade at Home includes a poem about watching a witch cooking something, and asks what the observing character’s face might look like – giving three choices, with one child looking alarmed, one smiling, one looking serious and worried. The answer given as “correct” is the look of alarm – but good teachers know that it is a child’s explanation of an answer that often matters more than the response itself. Any of the faces can be “correct” if the reason for the choice is explained by the child – and the more inventive the explanation, the better (whereas giving the “right” answer may simply mean giving the teacher what he or she wants, an endemic issue in education).

     Well, a book can do only so much, and 1st Grade at Home does a great deal. It informs, guides, assists, orients and, yes, educates parents as well as children. The math section even gets clearly into the base-10 system, place value and grouping tens and ones – topics that are at the heart of Tom Lehrer’s half-century-old concerns for parents, who in Lehrer’s song are told to do calculations in base eight. Now that is something not covered in 1st Grade at Home, and parents can and should be glad that it is not. They also can and should be glad that, most of the time, well-qualified teachers rather than overwhelmed and overextended parents are in charge of teaching reading and math. One thing all parents will definitely learn from 1st Grade at Home is that teachers certainly, emphatically, definitely deserve to be appreciated more and paid better. As a tribute to the combined reading/math curriculum in this book, determination of the mathematical percentage increase that professional teachers should receive is left as an exercise for the reader.

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