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A DAY IN THE COUNTRY: Learning about rulers

© Another Day in the Country

On another day in the country, we are attempting to use rulers in fourth grade art. It’s been difficult. I take rulers for granted. They have been around forever — which roughly equates to “as long as I can remember.” They are tangible, straight-forward, constant, useful tools, especially those traditional rulers made of wood.

Who would know that a ruler, twelve inches long, could be so confounding to children in this computerized age? These kids have been taught to Google for information, use spell check for words, slide their finger across a page, randomly, to access a world full of information. What use is a ruler to them?

And here I stand, showing them why they need a ruler for making a straight line on a piece of paper. Not just any old straight line, but a line that is precisely eight-and-a-half inches long, which eventually (if our calculations hold) will become one side of a rectangle. They look at me, their eyes blurred, their brains void of any correlation that this ruler could have with their existence.

“Let’s begin again,” I say, slowly repeating the instructions. “Put your paper vertical on your desk. Now lay your ruler vertical on the paper aligning the top of the ruler with the top of your paper and measure down one inch on the right side and place a dot there, and one inch on the left side and place a dot there.” I’m drawing out the instructions, as an illustration on the board as we go. Easy? No!

“Everyone have their two reference dots for one inch?” Since they are unfamiliar and untrusting of rulers I then tell them to check their measurements with their eyes, “Do they look the same?” If not, they are supposed to check their measurements, their assumptions, again.

“Now,” I tell my fourth graders, “Line up the ruler along those two dots and draw a line.”

Easy? Horrendously difficult for these children who’ve been trained to use their opposing thumbs to click buttons on electronic gadgets and their forefingers to glide across a computer screen, not hold a ruler steady. Their hands are stretched out, fingers straining like a young music students trying to reach an octave on the piano.

The rulers don’t cooperate. “Hold your ruler firmly in place with your left hand,” I tell them. “Keep your pencil (yes, we still use these) firmly against the edge of your ruler.” Once again, the small hands stretch and pull, the rulers slip and are disobedient. “Let’s try it again.” We try the buddy system — one person holding with two hands, one drawing the line.

This is where my advancing years, with all this accumulated knowledge, take their toll. I take for granted the length of a ruler, such a simple thing — twelve inches — yet so complicated for these 9-year-olds. There are all these marks and what do they mean and why should one end be better than the other? Half of these kids are lost as I explain and re-explain. They are used to answers appearing much faster. If they didn’t catch on to what I’m trying to show them, their fragile focus is gone. In a fast and faster-paced world, it seems they get lost even faster these days.

Our goal for now is a perfectly shaped rectangle, a safe enclosure on a clean white sheet of paper within which we will create something beautiful. This sheet of paper becomes a metaphor for their young lives. The rulers slip, they don’t understand the rules, they aren’t listening, the pencils move, the lines wobble, they make mistakes, they have to start over. “Don’t be scared of making a mistake,” I tell them. “Learn from your mistake so that you get a different outcome.”

How fortunate if they learn early in life that each choice achieves a different outcome, that every time they measure, lay the ruler down, they are making a choice. Does it get you what you want? Are you pleased? Does it work? Will they remember this when they are 16 or 21, when there no longer is a teacher to hand them a clean sheet of paper and say, “What have you learned? Let’s try this again.”

For this generation, the ruler seems to be an obsolete tool, an anomaly, a pain-in-the-neck. Why didn’t the teacher just DRAW a rectangle and copy it off on paper for all of them? Get on with it…after all, we only have an hour for this class and we haven’t yet dipped into the bright colored paints. We’ve used all the time for today on a ruler.

Last modified Oct. 9, 2014

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