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The New Language of Math

When did Math and Foreign Language become the same subject?

I used to do well in math. I have a distant memory of getting As in elementary school through high school. But that was a long time ago, before two plus two stopped equaling four.

It starts innocently enough. I’ll be making dinner, humming James Taylor, minding my own 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 fifth grade math be? I can do this. I stride determinedly 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. It looks familiar; I remember how to do this. Things are looking up. I grab the pencil, do the calculation, and triumphantly show my son the answer. Hero mom.

He 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. Why aren’t you writing 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.

When I met with my son’s teacher, I discovered there were many parents whose evenings ran parallel to mine. She offered me several options for support (for both my son and myself), including her own time, which I found extremely generous.

My friends who are math educators tell me the most important exercise is to
become familiar with the math vocabulary located in the back of most 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.

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 the schools provide? What Brookline 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?

caro March 21, 2011 at 05:56 PM
Adrienne, I had many similar conversations in my household! I can laugh at them now (but not then!) We relied heavily on drills and memorization at home, it helped strengthen my daughters skills in the classroom. A suggestion for an outside resource is Sylvan on Beacon Street, but I do not have personal experience with it. Anyone?
Angela Allen March 21, 2011 at 06:40 PM
Adrienne, Please know that the math specialists at the K-8 schools in Brookline provide regular parent workshops on how to understand the math that your child is learning and how to better support that learning at home. If you'd like to know more about the elementary mathematics program in Brookline or have additional questions, please feel free to contact me at angela_allen@brookline.k12.ma.us. Thanks, Angela F. Allen, Ph.D. K-8 Mathematics Curriculum Coordinator
Adrienne Kerman March 21, 2011 at 07:19 PM
Thank you so much, Angela! I have attended one of the workshops you mention and it was extremely helpful. I have found Brookline schools always at the ready to help parents (and, of course, students). Brookline moms and parents, I always suggest asking your child's teacher about the many resources the school provides. Angela, feel free to help keep us informed, thanks again for the info.
Michael & Nomi Burstein March 21, 2011 at 07:39 PM
We plan to rely on the fact that for many years, Michael was a Science and Math teacher. On the other hand, Nomi knows from experience that sometimes it's better to have someone who doesn't have advanced degrees that rely on Math to help out the kids...
Pam Roberts March 21, 2011 at 08:40 PM
I ran into math homework problems years ago when my now-teenage sons were in lower grades. I used to be good in Math, too! Thank goodness I'm married to an actuary! With a first grader in the house, I must say that the new curriculum is easier to comprehend than the previous one (yes, I realize that it's first grade!). Devotion School just had its Math Night, with lots of fun math games and problems. Hopefully other schools do this, too.
Leslie Johnston March 21, 2011 at 09:39 PM
I, too, needed a class to re-learn elementary math. Thank goodness Brookline schools recognize the need to teach the parents! Too many frustrating nights with my third grader ... I do wish they would have the children memorize times tables in school like we did. I think it would help.
jp March 21, 2011 at 11:03 PM
I hear a lot about the "Russian Math School" and I know many parents send their children there for added math instruction. Does anyone have any information about this school, or better yet have any opinions they can share? I'm wondering if it will be a good fit for my son ...
momalot March 22, 2011 at 11:46 AM
The Russian Math program follows a different math curriculum than the Brookline schools. It is also a different approach entirely to math, so it is not a support program but more of an independent supplement program. My daughter went to the school for second and third grade levels and I felt it gave her a much stronger foundation in math. We stopped going after that due to the cost, but I feel it was worth it. Beware, though, it is a commitment and it comes with a good amount of weekly homework, so make sure your child is ready for the added workload.
Adrienne Kerman March 22, 2011 at 01:51 PM
Driscoll School is holding the following Parent + Child event for Grades 4, 5, and 6 on Thursday, March 31. Looks like a lot of fun! Keep reading for deets ... Do you like games? Do you love puzzles? Join the adventure! Get Lost in Lexicon! A Parent + Child Book Event for Grades 4, 5 and 6 Lost in Lexicon is a story that includes solving problems in math and language. The library will be set up just like the land of Lexicon, with puzzles for students to try. This is a perfect start to reading the book! You don't need to read the book before you come. To read more about the book: http://www.lostinlexicon.com Thursday, March 31st Pizza - 6:00 in the Driscoll Cafeteria Event - 6:30 to 8:00 in the Driscoll Library
John Enders March 23, 2011 at 03:00 PM
Unfortunately, many math educators seem to like to focus on "concepts", rather than the language of math (for example, arithmetics). Maybe a bit like discussing philosophy rather than teaching children to read and write. Worse yet, is describing complex concepts using simplified made-up words that kids will never use in the future. Developmentally, elementary-age children can more easily focus on the concrete than the abstract, but so often mathemtatics education wants to push the abstract at the expense of learning the fundamental language(s) of math - including arithmetics. I was well into college before I had the math skills and maturity to fully appreciate many (most?any?) of the complex concepts of mathematics. Only then did I realize how inappropriate some of my primary mathematics education had been. So, my solution. Teach your kids arithmetics yourself (or with a private tutor, if need be), if you want (hope) them to become sufficiently math competent to use higher level math in their adult lives (banking, finance, engineering, computers, science...). Actually, teaching arithetics and algebra is sort of fun. In the meantime, maybe they will hold on to a few of the simplified concepts they're picking up in elementary mathematics. Sigh.
Libby Berke March 23, 2011 at 03:18 PM
Harcourt has a website for Think Math that explains some of the principles for grades K-5: http://www.harcourtschool.com/thinkmath/index.html Still, a look at the BPS website and some of the individual school websites made it very hard to find any kind of parent resources to help us help our kids to homework the way the school needs them to. I appreciate that they have meetings sometimes, but there needs to be more online resources available so we can help them on the spot when the need is urgent. Example: Lawrence has a detailed Math section on their website, but the Parent Resources section is empty: http://lawrence.brookline.k12.ma.us/math/index.html
annalyn March 23, 2011 at 04:32 PM
One of the first things I was told when my child entered Brookline schools was that I needed to find an outside source to teach basic math to mychild. In my case I did it myself, teaching my daughter arithmetics through sixth grade. To the Brookline school district, I know you have heard this multiple times before, but you need to implement a different math curriculum. Too many Brookline elementary school parents have to turn to (and pay for) outside sources to teach our children math. When will you listen? A good percentage of Brookline parents are financially strong enough and/or academically focused enough to support your current curriculum with outside, supplemental schooling. But if they weren't, would Brookline schools measure up to its excellent reputation?
maryd April 02, 2011 at 04:47 PM
The problem with the official rankings of Brookline Schools is that they are based on criteria that might not be what you're concerned about. For instance, here in Brookline just about all of the kids learn to read, do basic math and conquer the MCAS in a reasonable time frame and special needs are dealt with well. But many families feel that kids who DONT have problems aren't really addressed, certainly not at the elementary level and maybe even higher. If you ask around you'll find that a significant number of our children are in math, reading, music, language and other programs outside of school time to make sure that they are challenged enough. I suspect this is the case in many of the wealthy suburbs. Because there are no official stats on how many families use these options, the schools systems often get credit for more advanced learning development than they deserve.

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