Posted in A Day in the Life, parenting, School

The Poetry of Math: Roses are Red, Violets are 4


School was pretty straight forward when I was a student.  You went to school, you sat down at your (individual) desk, your teacher lectured, you practiced running drills based on the lecture, you got food and playtime, heard some more lectures, read a book, went home and practiced running drills based on the lectures of the day.  At the end of the week, you took a test to see how well you understood the lectures.  At the end of six weeks, you tried to explain to your parents that you did really well on the tests, you just didn’t understand why you needed to turn in that stupid homework, and didn’t think it was fair that the 0s on homework made the As on tests average out to Cs on your report card.

Note to self:  Math is ultimate adjudicator.  There is no fair, or unfair, only correct.

Note to Math:  This is why I hate you.  It is also why I respect you and am in love with your sexy younger brother, Physics.  Physics, call me!

School is confusing now.  Maybe not for the kids who are growing up in the system, but for me, and for some of the other bewildered parents I know, it is convoluted and entirely not mathematical.  We’re in good company with Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick, though.

[At the school open house] I felt as if I were toggling between a business school seminar and the space program; acronyms alone—seemingly random sequences of letters like MAP and SOL and EAPE—were being deployed more frequently than actual words. To be sure, the teachers seemed as maddened by it as the parents were. Even if we can all agree about the singular benefits of “project-based learning across the curriculum,” I am less than perfectly certain any of us knows what it means.

Last year, we got a letter in the mail telling us that we wouldn’t be seeing “grades” for the duration of elementary school.  No 0s, As, or Cs to worry about.  No math to worry about.  Only the wonder of still progressing toward the standard, having met the standard, or having exceeded it.

At our open house, Thor’s wonderful math teacher (and she is really a great teacher–we’ve had nothing but great teachers at this school, which is why I am not entirely alarmed by all the Big Brother Speak) was explaining how that applied to mathematics.  One father voiced my question, “But how will we know if he knows what he is doing?  Do we have worksheets or anything where we can time him, and see?  How much time should we spend on it every night?”

I knew exactly what he was talking about.  Part of my elementary school torment  drilling was the daily worksheet.  We would get 100 math questions (addition, subtraction, then multiplication, and division, then fractions–damn them to hell!) on a long sheet, and have 60 seconds to fly through as many answers as we could.  We memorized 7+2=9, and 5-4=1, and 6×2=12, and 18/3=6, and 1/2+3/4=1 1/4.  We didn’t have to sit and work the math on fingers, or blocks, or beads, we just knew.

Wonderful Math Teacher tried valiantly to explain that we no longer focus on memorization of mathematics, but on fluency of numbers.  I did not know what this meant, and neither did the father, who asked for clarification.

Fluency of numbers, WMT explained, helped a child be able to solve problems by words I had never heard put together in a sentence before and could not possibly begin to recount to you.  She did give the example that fluency meant instead of a child memorizing 7+2=9, they wanted a child to be able to look at 7+2= and say to themselves, “Well, 7+3=10, so if I take away 1, I have 9.  7+2=9.”

My question was, “How does the child know that 7+3 is 10?  Is that memorized?” Because fluency isn’t an exact science, and math…is.

I am fluent in English and still don’t understand half of what Rush Limbaugh says because his concepts and ideologies are so different from mine, he may as well be speaking a different language.  I turn on Fox and tilt my head like I’m a dog watching television.

I am terrible at math, but I know that I can follow formulas and rules, and plug variables into computations and get exact, binding, non-negotiable answers because Math is Facts.  You can add letters into math as placeholders, but you can’t make those placeholders mean anything without rules.  And the rules are not nebulous, variable things like guidelines for grammar or spelling.

If math ran grammar and spelling, it would be impossible to put an i before an e, or end a sentence with a preposition.  You just couldn’t do it.

I grew up going to school run by Math rules.  My son is growing up going to school run by Poetic License.  It seems scary to me.

When I was taking my teaching certification courses, we were told that the old school Sage from the Stage style of lecturing was passe.  We were told that today’s teachers are Guides standing Beside.  I don’t know about you, but when I’m out in the wilderness, I want the Guide out in front of me because he knows where the snakes are.  And I want that because that’s how I grew up, or I want that because it is the most pragmatic approach?

There are as many different learning styles as there are children, and as many different home lives, which factors in greatly to how a child is able to receive instruction in a classroom.  I’m on a learning curve trying to match up with what my son thinks is a learning straight line.

I still think flash cards are the way to go.

If you need me, I’ll be problematizing cross-curricular content throughout multiple modalities in order to better integrate hands-on goals within the new paradigm.

Wish me luck.

I have to say again and again that Thor’s teachers are fantastic.  

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Author:

Happy. That about covers it.

8 thoughts on “The Poetry of Math: Roses are Red, Violets are 4

  1. Although my kids’ schools do have grades, the approach to math is the same. It’s called Everyday Mathematics (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Everyday_Mathematics) and I have to watch Khan Academy videos to understand what on earth they’re doing. And the longer the kid is in school, the worse it gets. My daughter HATES math, though she could be quite good at the concepts if she just had the basics. At least this year, her teacher is doing both “everyday” and the traditional method, which the Homework Helper (me) can at least comprehend.

  2. Yes. Apparently, they don’t linger on concepts, either, so if you didn’t get it the first time… I would have been completely lost if this had been my math coursework. It’s the equivalent of teaching kids lit crit before they read any actual books. “Now, children, let’s discuss Derrida and the concept of difference/differance. Margaret, I told you to put that book away. We are not reading today. Or ever.”

      1. …we were in the same class, then. (Actually, that example right there would be why I have an MA and not a PhD.)

  3. I’ve been a skeptic of everyday math and I’ve casually made sure my 5 kids could do the basics the old-fashioned way. (Stuck in traffic and bored? Can you count by 7’s?/No homework? Let me get you a superkids.com worksheet….) Although I particularly/vocally hated lattice multiplication and 2nd grade estimation worksheets (in which the obvious real right answer was wrong), I mostly stayed quiet. I now think my “IB HL Math” graduates got great math educations– better than I had at my fancy private school in the 80’s. You can still get a good math education even with all the silly jargon and new techniques. Some of that emphasis on early algebra and estimation turned out pretty good– for my kids anyway. I worry about the jargon’s impact, however, on immigrant children and the math-talented kids that are slow to get reading. We’ve made it much, much harder to let them shine.

  4. I’ve been a skeptic of everyday math and I’ve casually made sure my 5 kids could do the basics the old-fashioned way. (Stuck in traffic and bored? Can you count by 7’s?/No homework? Let me get you a superkids.com worksheet….) Although I particularly/vocally hated lattice multiplication and 2nd grade estimation worksheets (in which the obvious real right answer was wrong), I mostly stayed quiet. I now think my “IB HL Math” graduates got great math educations– better than I had at my fancy private school in the 80’s. You can still get a good math education even with all the silly jargon and new techniques. Some of that emphasis on early algebra and estimation turned out pretty good– for my kids anyway. I worry about the jargon’s impact, however, on immigrant children and the math-talented kids that are slow to get reading. We’ve made it much, much harder for them to shine.

    1. That’s good to read! We do drills with Thor all the time, and he only gets to play his favorite iPad games after spending a set amount of time working on basic math skills. He gets 1/3 of the total amount of time he spends on the math. Ha! I learned a fraction!

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