Ann Farabee column: Do not take the pencil

Published 12:00 am Sunday, October 31, 2021

By Ann Farabee

Early in my teaching career, which was decades ago, my class was working on 3 digit-by-3 digit multiplication. Yes, back in the day, we only taught the standard algorithm. The school had calculators to check out for use, but they were only for special occasions.

On this day, there was one student who continued to struggle, even though she was putting forth great effort. As I was walking around the classroom helping students, I noticed she was getting confused, because she was having trouble lining the numbers up on the paper. I suggested that she turn her notebook paper sideways, so she could better align the problem by using the blue lines to keep it straight.

She seemed pleased. I felt like a good teacher. I walked away.

She tried it. It was not much help.


She remained confused. She looked at me and smiled as she said, “This is the hardest math we have done.” I tended to agree, and was determined to help take away some of her frustration by staying with her as she continued. Noticing an error, I showed it to her, reached for her pencil, and wrote the correct number.

I felt pretty successful at that point, so I watched as she began the next problem. Seeing continued hesitation, I reached for her pencil again. She kindly patted my hand and pushed it away, as she said, “I think I can do it better if I write the numbers by myself.”

Uh…. I had just been schooled. It reminded me of how it is when we are feeding our babies, and then one day they grab the spoon and feed themselves. Yes, it was messy. No, it was not perfect. But it needed to happen.

After that, I began to let my students ‘hold the pencil’ as they worked. Some even began to work the problems using a different process. It may not have been the way I had learned to teach it, and at times, it was messy and not perfect, but we were all happier.

It really is the same with any learning.

It may be messy.

It may not be perfect.

But it needs to happen.

The student has probably not had reason to complete a similar multiplication problem on notebook paper in many years, and she probably never will, but I sure did learn something that day:

• Leading someone to learning is rewarding.

• Doing it for them is doing it for them.

• They will make mistakes, but that’s why pencils have erasers.

Aristotle said, “For the things we have to learn before we do them, we learn by doing them.”

ANN-istotle said, “When teaching someone, do not take the pencil.”

By the way, is multiplication in the Bible?

Yes, the Bible says go fourth and multiply.

This column is dedicated to all math lovers.

Ann Farabee is a teacher, writer and speaker. Contact her at or

About Post Lifestyles

Visit us on Facebook: and Twitter @postlifestlyes for more content

email author More by Post