This column originally appeared on Brookline Patch in March 21, 2011. It has been updated and is running again in response to a recent push by local educators to get parents involved in math initiatives.
I used to do well in math. I have an (unfortunately) very distant memory of getting A's in elementary school math. But that was a long time ago, before two plus two stopped equaling four.
It starts out innocently enough. I’ll be making dinner, screeching James Taylor into the spatula, minding my own off-tuned business, when I hear IT. The eight words that bring instant alarm and dread to my gut.
“Mom, I need help with my math homework.”
How hard can sixth grade math be? I was eleven when I graduated that particular grade. I can do this. I know I can.
I stride determinedly--confidently even--to the dining room table, sit down and read the directions on the lab sheet. I’m already ready to admit defeat. I might as well be looking at assembly directions to an armoire from IKEA.
I glance at the first problem. Wait, this looks familiar. I remember how to do this. Things are looking up. I grab the pencil, do the calculation, twirl the pencil deftly (and quite skillfully I must admit) and triumphantly show my son the answer. Hero mom.
My son looks at me as if I’ve grown two heads, which, in truth, is a look I get more and more with each developing hormone.
What follows is an honest to goodness conversation we have repeatedly in my household. It is not, I repeat, not, made up for anyone’s enjoyment. Because, really, no one finds enjoyment in this.
Mom: Here is the answer to problem one.
Son: I know the answer, Mom, that’s not the question.
Mom: Huh? What do you mean?
Son: I don’t know.
Mom: Well, this is the answer. I’ll show you again how to do it.
Son: You don’t know, Mom. You didn’t do it right.
Mom: Yes, I did. This is the correct answer, right here. Write it down.
Son: That’s not how we did it in class.
Mom: How did you do it in class?
Son: I don’t know.
Mom: (Deep breath)
Son: We have to show our work.
Mom: I did show the work. It’s right here. Here it is. Write it down.
Son: You don’t know, Mom. That’s not how it looked in class.
Mom: How did it look in class?
Son: I don’t know.
One exceedingly frustrating hour later it’s clear. He doesn't know and I most certainly don't know. And dinner is overcooked.
I know there are many parents whose evenings run parallel to mine, mostly because I hear them screaming when I drive by their homes. Math is most definitely not the same it was when the nuns taught it to me back at St. Gregory the Great Elementary School in Virginia Beach.
My friends who are math educators tell me, (while graciously pouring me a second glass of wine and covertly removing all sharp instruments from within my reach) that the most important exercise is to become familiar with the math vocabulary, usually located in the back of those evil math texts. Because, guess what? Math literally IS a different language, and the first step to learning a new language is to learn the vocab, which is much different than it was back when I was busy memorizing times tables.
And that's about the only tip I can give you. I'm sorry to say that's all I got in my how-to-survive-today's-math arsenal. I'm flying my white flag, I surrender. Pass the Chardonay, please.
So this week’s questions goes out to parents and educators. What advice can you give to bridge the gap between parents and students when it comes to today’s math? What assistance do your schools provide? What resources (schools, classes, tutoring, math clubs etc.) exist to help students who struggle with math, or excelling students move forward at a faster pace? What tips can you give students to strengthen their math skills?