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Clara's Clearing

Clara's Clearing

Failing Math

Saturday, July 09, 2011

This blog is part of Educating My Boy: Chronicles of a Free-Schooler

I’d say this year was not a successful one for Math. My husband Henry was in charge of teaching math and since because of our move and Henry’s long commutes we knew he would not have a lot of time our goal was a modest one. The plan was to use sixth grade to get Jack to become sure-footed and fast in using the multiplication table and to continue with basic arithmetic.


Well, it didn’t work out. I realized half way through the year that Henry was simply not going to have enough time, or energy, to take on teaching math to Jack. I myself felt pretty overwhelmed by all that I had to do too so I looked into getting some outside help in teaching math.


When Jack was in school math was his favorite subject and he was in the GATE (gifted and talented education) program mostly on account of his math scores. In fourth grade in a letter to President Obama in class he wrote: “Dear President Obama, I get advance on my math test. Can we be friends?” He took pride and pleasure in his math abilities and I wanted him to continue enjoying that.


For outside help I first looked at Kumon. I like their approach to teaching math, which involves a lot of repetition until kids are very confident and ready to move on. Concepts and operations are introduced in a way that kids pick up quickly and get more challenging slowly and gradually. I have to say I prefer the Asian school of teaching math as opposed to the American way, which involves too much verbalization for my taste and patience. I can’t quite explain what I mean (I am not at all up on math pedagogy!) but I think using too many words to describe or explain math is a waste of time and confusing for the student. It’s much easier to “show” math to kids than to explain it in words. I think words slow down the math brain.


Kumon requires that kids do 20 minutes of math every day – which is fine. The problem for me was that they require that kids do that every day of the week, no breaks. Now, I think working on anything seven days a week is excessive and I know that my kid would rebel against that. I used to study math in college and I remember how much I loved it. I would love my son to experience the pleasure of math. I knew that forcing him seven days a week to work on anything will not sit well with him and will turn him against it. “Nobody works seven days a week,” I told the Kumon lady. But she was very strict about it so I gave up on Kumon. I didn’t want to pay $120 a month, get into tugs of war, and end up killing Jack’s love of math once and for all.


Next I checked into what another homeschooling mother uses for her daughter. EPGY – Education Program for Gifted Youth – is run through Stanford University and has an online interactive curriculum that students complete at their own pace. It has review courses which would have been particularly good for us. The price tag? About $600. The price and the emphasis on the “gifted and talented” label put me off. I find that using that label tends to go along with a competitive approach that is the opposite of what I want to accomplish for Jack: the pleasure of math.


Doing a little online research I realized there are a great many online courses for teaching math. In our homeschooling email lists I have seen lots of advice and resources on finding good math curricula. Before forking out $600 for EPGY I decided to do some more homework and consult our various homeschooling communities. I wrote off sixth grade as an “F” in math (for myself as a teacher!) and Jack will have to catch up next year.


The plan for next year is to involve Henry (who is now working 3 days a week, which means he has more time and we have less money – so definitely forget about costly courses in any subject) in finding a good math curriculum for Jack and for him to be in charge of “teaching” it. I simply can’t keep up with everything.


One of the lessons one learns in homeschooling a kid is one’s own limits. Obviously we all have limits in what we know but we’re also limited in what we can take on period. Especially as kids grow up one needs help in doing a good job teaching. I am hoping Henry will come through in math. But even if he can’t meet all the demands on his time (we have a publishing business that we run in addition to his other job) I hope we can somehow keep the pleasure of math alive in Jack so that someday he will immerse himself in it and catch up.


I believe that in one summer one can learn something that has been forced on one for years in school. With math I will have to put my trust in this belief.


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