I’m sure most of you have been there at one point or another, be it for yourself or your kids. That point where we just want to pretend math doesn’t exist! I actually used to like math and was relatively good at it. And then I had children. Like many of us who made it to advanced math classes, I can barely remember what Algebra 2 or Trig or Calculus is, much less how to do it. It comes from not needing it in the 25 plus years since I last set foot into a classroom. And now here I am with my children who struggle with math, knowing that some of it will be important throughout their lives, but other parts, they will barely remember. (Unless they’re planning to be mathematicians, engineers or follow careers along those lines that is! That is unlikely to be my children, though). Don’t get me wrong, math is still very important. It just seems that the way we look at math in our schools needs to change.
Let’s take Master Yi-Yi. From first through eighth grade, nothing was guaranteed to make him madder or cause him to throw a tantrum like math homework. His undiagnosed ADHD in elementary school made it difficult for him to memorize facts. He’d unlearn them as quickly as he learned them. He seemed to grasp the underlying concepts, but his inability to quickly recall facts bogged him down. Middle school was a little better than elementary school, though obviously he wasn’t in any advanced classes. At least, he did always manage to pass his math SOL tests. It wasn’t until high school that he actually began to enjoy math. He had a wonderful algebra teacher who provided a great foundation, which is a good thing, because this year in geometry, he has pretty much been on his own to actually learn the material. He will now tell you math is his favorite subject. But he still isn’t good with his math facts.
Little H has had a less tumultuous history with math. But there is one thing that stands out. When she was in third grade, the lattice method was the new wave in multi-digit multiplication. And she learned to do it well, so much so that to this day any other methods make no sense to her. She used it throughout third and fourth grade. Then the school district adopted a new math series, and the lattice method went out of vogue. So, the teachers told her to “forget” how to do it. Since math, maybe more than any other subject, builds on what you know, this kind of devalued its importance in her mind. Long division wasn’t all that much better. In middle school, her teachers expected her to know the traditional way to do both long division and multiplication. But no one ever really taught it. The elementary school is all about spiraling and word problems. The middle school just expected you to know it. I wound up “trying” to teach her multi-digit multiplication and long division, but it hasn’t stuck too well.
And then there is Monkey Boy, who inspired me to write this blog because I was torturing both of us with math homework for SOL review last night. I never truly knew what an utter nightmare math could be until he came along. Kindergarten through second grade wasn’t so bad. The problems really began in third grade right about the time he came to the realization that he doesn’t catch on as quickly as the other kids. Beyond his learning disabilities, I mostly blame the spiraling curriculum and the SOL test for his difficulty with math to this day.
For those of you who don’t know, spiraling is a method where similar material is covered every year. Its supposed purpose is to build on the year before. And in theory, it sounds great. But for kids who have trouble learning math, not so much. Here is an interesting article. As the article suggests, spiraling hinders children from mastering a concept, so children begin to feel like failures, and they shut down. Monkey Boy is a classic example of this.
Every time we do homework, he tells me he doesn’t know math, and he’s not good at math. And you know what? He’s actually fine in math, but not at the level he is expected to be learning. But he’s lost all his self-confidence. He’s failed every single math SOL test, yet he goes on to the next grade and continues to move forward without a good foundation.
So, math homework continues to be a nightmare. Monkey Boy confessed last night, as he was hiding and bouncing, that even if he doesn’t understand something, he will say he does, so his teacher will stop explaining it to him. It doesn’t help that he also has a language learning disability, which makes verbal explanations doubly difficult for him.
All the same we continue to plug away until the math homework is “done,” and I end each night feeling like I’ve been run over by a truck, and I’m sure he ends up hating math just a little bit more.