Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Like Mother, Like Son...

Math and I don't get along.  Never have.  Well, that's not entirely true.  We did just fine together, were even on friendly terms, until long division came around.  Remainders can bite me, that's all there is to it.  And word problems?  Well they're just waterboarding directly to the brain as far as I'm concerned.  That train leaving Chicago at 1pm, going 65 mph?  I hope it derails itself right off a cliff into a fiery tangle at the bottom of a ravine (empty and on auto-pilot, of course).  It was sad really, because despite tutors and hours of hand-wringing and Little Engine that Could-ing, turns out I really couldn't.

I recall an evening where somehow in my angst, I ended up sitting on the bottom step of the staircase in our house, math book splayed out in front of me, notebook on my lap, my father trying to explain the words on the page and how they translated into a mathematical problem that did indeed, contrary to my sobbing bellows, have some sort of feasible solution.  I remember getting my first academic warning in 3rd grade---a yellow slip of paper informing my parents that mid-way through the quarter, I currently owned a big fat "D" in math.  I sent myself to my room, cried pathetically into my pillow and wondered what would become of a math-deficient wretch like me until my parents came into the room to assure me that they still loved me and I wasn't in trouble or destined to a life of groundings and all-around failure just because long division looked like chicken scratchings on paper and made my brain hurt.

Turns out they were right;  while that yellow warning slip from my 3rd grade teacher wasn't the last "D" I'd see in math (and there was even one "F" in there, in college), I still managed to make honor roll almost every quarter of my academic career and graduated Magna Cum Laude from college and graduate school. Thank goodness there's no math in Shakespeare or Bronte.

And here I am, 42 years old, a successful teaching and almost 8 years of motherhood behind me and I've very rarely found myself in serious need of higher order thinking math skills.  Well, let me clarify that; when I have found the need of those skills, I generally have had either calculators handy or friends for whom numbers are not terrifying to help out.  Outsourcing math--that's a skill I possess.

Now I have a 7.5 year old kid who, turns out, needs my help in math.  And this is okay.  For now.  We're currently "regrouping" in subtraction, which is what we used to call "borrowing" back in the stone age when I was in 2nd grade.  I have no problem turning a 5 into a 15 so I can subtract it from 9 and turning the 7 into a 6 so the 5 can become 15.  I have no problem doing that type of equation 25 times an evening for homework.  And then we flip the sheet over and there are word problems.  These days, I find the word problems easier than the rest of it--my relationship with words having become so friendly that they somehow seem to make the numbers less intimidating and more manageable than when I was in 3rd grade.   But I know the day is coming....

He's going to start doing division, and fractions (the humanity!!!) and the word problems are going to start to look like gibberish and he's going to fly ahead of me.  I never took calculus or trigonometry.  I stopped at Algebra 2, and really, that came the year after Geometry, and Geometry with Sister Eleanor really stripped my brain of any math-problem-solving-skills I might have possessed going into the class.  I had Sister Eleanor for THREE years of high school math.  I suppose its entirely possible she was just a rubbish teacher and I really *can* do math if someone teaches me correctly.  But given the fact that the class I scored an "F" in was a college course, taken 2 years after Algebra 2 and taught by someone other than Sister Eleanor, chances are I"m just not good at math.

The only issue we have with math right now is "the drill."  Every Tuesday, Ethan has a sheet of math problems put in front of him (simple addition and subtraction), and he and the rest of his classmates have 2 minutes to complete the entire sheet.  They can get 3 problems wrong (or incomplete).  If they don't accomplish that, they get the same sheet the next week and they repeat it until they get no more than 3 of them wrong.   Ethan has no problem with the equations--they are simple, one-columned problems that he's known the answers to since the beginning of 1st grade.  The problem is the 2 minutes.  Ethan doesn't work quickly to begin with--he checks the answer to one problem before he goes on to the next one.  He reads a problem 2-3 times first to make sure he's got the numbers in the right order in his brain.  He double checks to make sure he's supposed to be adding instead of subtracting. And, then there's always the factor of "squirrel!!!" distractions that his brain really struggles to overcome so he can focus on what's in front of him.  His brain doesn't do 25 math problems in 2 minutes.  Give him 5 minutes, he's golden.  Two minutes?  He finishes half of the sheet.  Almost never gets a problem incorrect, but almost never finishes the sheet.  Therefore, he's "struggling" in math.  And he feels like he's failing math, like he's bad at math.

Guys, this chaps my ass.  My kid, who gets 90-95%'s on bona fide skills-testing, un-timed tests in math, is afraid of math.  He's good at it, numbers make sense to him and his brain likes working with them.  But it doesn't do that work lickety-split and WHY is finishing a sheet of math problems in a very small set amount of time a significant marker of intelligence, anyway?  The idea of the drill reduces him to tears when we practice at home.  There are headaches and tummy aches and heads on the table and melodramatic runnings from the room, wailing and protesting that it can't be done.  I have stopped timing the drills at home.  "Just get it done, I don't care if it takes the next hour.  You can do it."  

Recently, during an after school playground conversation with some parents, I found out that Ethan's not the only one in his class struggling with these timed drills, and I'm not the only parent frustrated by how these drills seem to overshadow my child's otherwise perfectly on-target math skills and his confidence in those skills.

I walk a fine like between encouraging him to push himself harder and race his way through the drill, not looking back from one problem to the next, urging him to play along with the system and move up to the next level, and honoring the way his brain works and just telling him not to worry about it--finishing 25 math problems in 2 minutes is an arbitrary and useless method of assessing one's intelligence and we've got more important things to work on and worry about than how fast you can churn out simple addition and subtraction facts.  And his teacher is WONDERFUL at encouraging him and praising him when he gets close, and this past week she moved him up to the next level even though he left 4 answers at the end empty.  She knows he can do the work.  She gets him and that is our saving grace, and I'm eternally grateful.  But who knows if his next teacher will get him in the same way?

It did not occur to me that math would be even more difficult the second time around, as a mother.


cicadalady said...

I hear you on all of that - I did take Calculus, but I have a D to show for it - but I'll have to ask Lu because we found this great (free online) game for her for practicing the problems that gave them good rhymes and really helped her with it (she was totally stressed out by the timed tests too). I'll let you know when I figure out what it is.

Sarah said...

Our kids have to respond in 3 seconds, but they do oral quizzes not timed tests. I DO NOT CARE AT ALL how he does on these oral drills. My job is not tied to how well my kid performs on a standardized test, so fuck it is my general feeling (and he gets math just fine). Second grade, man.

Sue said...

Math and I have never gotten along either. I remember bawling while my mother and grandfather would try to 'splain for me how to do my homework. In "old math" terms. And I was (supposed) to be doing in the the "new math" way we were learning in school. My grandfather would get mad and leave and my mother would beat the ever loving snot outta me because I didn't understand. Yeah. That helped. NOT! At 50+, I still have days when I have to add 1 + 1 on mah flingers and STILL get the wrong answer. My only assivice is to just keep being there for E and encouraging him. And love him. I don't want any kid feeling like a failure like my mother made me feel because I did not understand. (and I know you don't!)

lonek8 said...

Izzy's class has 5 minutes to do 100 problems. When they answer above 95% they move on- from addition to subtraction to multiplication to division. I understand the theory behind the time limit is that the kids know it so well it becomes automatic. But in practice it can be so frustrating when your kid isn't a fast worker. Isabelle was stuck at 90% on addition FOREVER, even though she obviously knew all of the answers and really should have moved on to harder tests. Oh well. Do the best you can, make sure he knows what he really needs to know as opposed to what the school arbitrarily decides he needs to know. That's the best we can do, right?