The Remarkable Lola May: She Changed Your Life Forever

The Remarkable Lola May: She Changed Your Life Forever
Lola J. May

What Makes Lola Remarkable?

Remarkable women take you as you are and make you better. They help you understand the world and your place in it. They make sense out of nonsense, and they bring order from chaos. That’s what Lola May did.

 You may not think that Lola May changed your life. She did. Yours, your generation’s, and generations to come. She grabbed the world of mathematics by the horns and turned it upside down—well, actually, she turned it right side up. She made those of us who swore we didn’t like math do a 180 by showing us that we could solve math problems through hands-on learning—not just memorizing abstract mathematic principles. Lola did the unthinkable. She made math fun.

Who Is Lola May?

Lola May was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin in 1923. Her father was a salesman; her mother a homemaker. She was active, happy, and independent from day one. She was also the bane of her brother Durward’s existence. Once, when Lola was about four, he was forced to take her to Sunday School. The congregation was singing a hymn. Since Lola couldn’t read, she belted out her favorite song, Yes Sir, That’s My Baby, and she kept on singing after the hymn ended. Durward dragged her home, swearing never to take her to Sunday School—or anywhere else—again. Lola’s assessment—her brother lacked a sense of humor.

She learned to love mathematics as a child. Her father was a good mathematician, and he taught her the meaning of numbers and how they operated. He worked with her every night using a portable blackboard and a box full of change. The two played games that required counting and strategizing. By the time Lola was in second grade, she was playing cribbage.  In third grade, when her teacher threatened to make the class do arithmetic if they misbehaved, Lola saw to it that they had arithmetic every day.

Most of what Lola May remembered about her early school days was boredom and way too many rules. The only thing she really enjoyed was playing in the band, though she never seriously considered becoming a professional musician. The last thing she wanted to do was become a teacher, which, of course, she did. At the outset of her teaching career, she made herself a promise: she would teach her students to laugh and ask questions. She would laugh with them and answer their questions. Her curriculum would be as varied as her students and would address their needs. The bright ones would not be bored waiting for others to catch up, the slower ones would not be intimidated by those who learned more quickly. She kept that promise.

As a young teacher, Lola learned as much as she taught. From a football coach she learned the importance of having one clear objective that everyone could understand and achieve. From a knitting expert, she learned that if a child is having difficulty learning, you just need to put your arms around that child and demonstrate the process. And from a student named Fred, she learned the importance of being on the other side of learning. Fred was one of her general math students who was having a tough time in class. She kept trying and failing to teach him long division. “Round off, estimate, multiply, bring down,” she would say. And he would reply, “I just don’t understand a word you’re saying”.

While Fred was not good at mathematics, he was very good at auto mechanics. One day, when Lola was having trouble with her car, and the men at the garage couldn’t find the problem, Lola asked Fred to take a look at it. He met her in the parking lot, started the car, looked under the hood, and explained what was wrong. “Fred, I don’t understand a word you’re saying,” said Lola. He smiled and asked, “How does it feel, Miss May?” Sometimes, you have to be on the other side of learning.

The Winnetka Years

In the sixties, Lola May found her way to Chicago’s North Shore—first to New Trier High School, then to the Winnetka Elementary Schools. This was the era of “the new math”—when the math curriculum and teaching changed. The main thrust of the change was a switch from the teacher telling and students reciting to inquiry and discovery on the premise that students would be more likely to retain information they found out for themselves rather than have it force fed to them. It also involved using number bases other than ten and introducing more abstract number theory concepts, such as prime numbers, much earlier —changes tailor made for Lola May. New Trier students loved her classes and she loved teaching them. They actually cheered when they solved math equations and groaned when a math class ended. She once said the biggest thing she had going for her was her enthusiasm.  “There are people who are brighter than I am. There are people who may be better teachers—although I’m pretty good at teaching. But I have enthusiasm.”

Three things to remember when teaching: (1) Know your stuff, (2) Know whom you are stuffing, and (3) Stuff them elegantly. Lola May


A Lola May Math Text

A Lola May Math Text

A Lola May Poser
Lola helped establish the first Resource Center in the United States in Winnetka. Resource Centers were exciting places for students to study, experiment, and learn under a director and a cadre of volunteer experts. The director of the Winnetka Center was Joe Richardson, himself a brilliant mathematician and, like Lola, an ardent believer in learning through discovery. Lola wrote units for students covering topology, logic, construction of geometric shapes, matrices, and much more. She also taught these topics in special classes at the Junior High School. I had the good fortune (or misfortune, depending on how you look at it) to teach in a room across from hers. I mentioned that Lola May was enthusiastic--she was also loud. I tried closing my door, talking over her, playing music. Nothing worked. Finally, one day, I just marched my class across the hall,  and we stood at the back of her classroom. When she gave me a questioning look I said, "Well, as long as we're going to hear everything you say, we might as well watch you in action." I'd like to say she toned it down after that. She didn't.

I learned a lot about math and teaching from Lola May. I also learned she was not crazy about competition. I was teaching Social Studies at the junior high school, and I became interested in the scientific advancements of the late eighteenth century and their impact on society. The science teacher and I devised a curriculum based on science and society in the Enlightenment. Shortly thereafter, Lola came storming into my room, all six feet two of her, demanding to know what I was trying to prove—that I could teach bright kids? Anybody could teach bright kids. It was the others who demanded real teaching skill. I pointed out that was exactly what she was doing with her Resource Center approach. Big mistake. Fortunately, Lola was very forgiving. Years later, she asked me to edit her autobiography. When I handed back the edited manuscript, she magnanimously referred to me as “…the best damned Social Studies teacher she ever knew.” Mission accomplished.

During her long career, Lola piled up awards and accolades. She authored mathematics textbooks. She received the Northwestern Alumni Merit Award, the Lifetime Achievement Award of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, and the Educator of the Year Award from the Winnetka Chamber of Commerce. She starred in a WNBQ television series on mathematics. She wrote a cartoon series on new math for adults, Space Age Math for Stone Age Parents. She developed readiness kits for the Society for Visual Education (SVE) on teaching place value, fractions, geometry, and measurement. She created number games using techniques that enable group problem-solving. She presented math workshops nationwide and taught at Harvard. And, she wrote the aforementioned autobiography, Lola May Who, which helped teachers coast to coast get to know and appreciate her.

Lola May's Autobiography

Lola May's Autobiography

Lola May and You

      I began by saying that Lola May changed your life. In case you haven’t figured out how, let me suggest a few ways. Every time you google something on your computer and apply the information to whatever problem you are working on, you are paying homage to Lola May. Every time you exchange ideas with colleagues to arrive at new ways of dealing with issues, you are using the tools Lola May gave you. Every time you question answers, not just answer questions, you are using a Lola May technique. Every time you look at the world with an open mind, you are working toward a goal advocated by Lola May.  Every time you regard benchmarks in your life as parts of a journey, not  destinations, you are practicing what Lola May taught.

Lola May passed away on March 13, 2007—interestingly a date that consists of all prime numbers. We are all part of her legacy.

(Process to answer puzzle)   Once you realize that the problem is unconventional, this leads to the observation that 2+3=5; then you notice that 2*3=6    Add the digits for the first part; multiply the digits for the second part. Problem solved.

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