For the Love of Math

As a child, I loathed math. From the very earliest — first grade — it confounded and intimidated me. I felt stupid. My father, being an elementary teacher, sought to bolster my learning by doing flashcards for addition and subtraction. In order to perform and please him, and my teacher, I memorized the cards. I didn’t really understand 7 + 4 = 11. And so I didn’t understand the process of numbers. In later elementary grades I remember struggling with area and perimeter, multiplication and long division. I felt utterly unintelligent.

In ninth grade, I fought with algebra. It didn’t help that the teacher was an older woman who radiated vulnerability, which meant the students disrespected her and little teaching happened. I began to skip class. I would go to the resource center after school for help. When we got to word problems, I discovered I was able to do them with help from the resource teacher, and I felt a measure of accomplishment.

In tenth grade it was geometry. The teacher was a gruff old man who terrified me. I’d look at the book and none of it made sense. I couldn’t understand, and the fact that I struggled reinforced the feeling of failure. And so, I began skipping that class too. Except the school sent home a letter to my parents. I was required to stay after school to work in a small group with the teacher. And to my surprise, I found him less scary, and I began to understand a bit more. But math remained oblique to me.

I remember cramming for the Geometry Regents exam with my brother-in-law the weekend before the exam. I feared failing it, since that meant I’d have to do summer school, which would mess up the family camping plans. If I failed, I assumed the wrath of my father would obliterate me. I took the exam. I struggled. Afterward I cried, certain that I hadn’t passed. The next day, the teacher proctored the Biology Regents exam. He roamed down the rows of kids, and as he came to me, he leaned over and whispered, “You passed. You got 65%.” Oh, glory! Bless him for sparing me the torment of waiting to find out.

In our state the requirement for math was a minimum of two years. In my senior year I took “practical math,” also considered math for dummies. It was basic arithmetic, percentages, fractions, and so on. I did it to fill out my schedule.

And after that I ran from math as far and fast as I could for many years. In my mid-20s, I returned to college full-time to finish my B.A. in psychology. My first semester included a statistics course that met three times a week at 8 a.m. The teacher gave a weekly “quiz” — 30 multiple choice questions that were actually very challenging. My first one came back with a grade of D.

I panicked. I needed to pass this! So I decided I would get all the help I could. His office hours were from 7-8 a.m. So before the next test, I was in his office with questions. He patiently helped me, and suddenly the heavens opened and the light of understanding beamed upon me — wait, no. Not really. But I understood more, and I got a B on the next test. There were 14 tests in that class. I read the text, calculated the problems, and studied diligently for each test. When I received the grade of B at the end, I was really proud of myself.

The following semester I took a general math class. I learned about the Euler method, and sequencing, and a bunch of other stuff I’ve forgotten now. I worked hard in that class, and I earned an A.

Since then, I haven’t needed much math. And I’m still daunted by it. I can’t do basic calculations in my head; I still use my fingers, or write things down. But as a parent, I have kept my mouth shut about this. I have not talked about my dislike of math, or my struggles with it, because I believe that math can be learned. It takes effort. I know that now, and I proved in the college courses I could do the work.

The other day, Claire said, “I HATE math!!” Oh, dear. In the past we had done Bedtime Math, which she enjoyed and felt confident doing. But we got lazy about it. Upon returning to it, I noticed she was distracted, not really trying to understand the questions. She would then sense my frustration with her (for not trying) and quit, saying, “I’m stupid.”

Claire has a streak of perfectionism in her and a tendency to conclude that if she doesn’t understand something, the problem is inherent to her. She assumes math ability is a fixed quality — she is just not good at math, period. How interesting, because she is actually very bright, and learning has always been fun in our family. According to her teacher, she is performing well in math. I look at her worksheets and see correct answers. So, what is going on?

I made a comment on Facebook, and a friend of mine who is a teacher contacted me privately. She offered me some suggestions worth sharing.

First, she commented that Claire doesn’t see me doing math. I’m her biggest role model. I read avidly, but never do math puzzles, for example. Hmm.

Next, it is not uncommon for girls to absorb attitudes about math from other people — at school, peers have a lot of influence.

Then she told me about some resources:

  • I can download Noyce problems of the month from Inside Mathematics and try them myself. Last year, our school offered the Problem of the Month for kids to work on, and Claire enjoyed it. From the website, it says,

    “Problems of the Month are non-routine math problems designed to be used schoolwide to promote a problem-solving theme at your school. Each problem is divided into five levels of difficulty, Level A (primary) through Level E (high school), to allow access and scaffolding for students into different aspects of the problem and to stretch students to go deeper into mathematical complexity.”

    So, she can do the beginning levels with me, and I can take on the rest. Hey, I might even enjoy them!

  • Greg Tang Math: who on earth is Greg Tang? From the Scholastic book website, his biography says,

    “Greg Tang was tutoring math in his daughter’s class when he noticed something interesting about the dominoes they were using. Each white dot had a pencil mark on it, which meant the children had been counting them one at a time. Mr. Tang taught them to look for patterns instead, and to add and subtract groups of dots in order to calculate the dominoes’ value quickly. From there, he developed a new method of teaching arithmetic in a visual and spontaneous way. His method teaches both computational and problem-solving skills, and is so fun and challenging that children forget they are learning math! He believes that all kids are capable of doing well in math, and he has a mission to make math a natural part of every child’s life. He has successfully taught his method to children from ages five to ten.”

    Greg has a number of cleverly titled math workbooks for kids, such as The Grapes of Math, Math Potatoes, and Math-terpieces. His website offers games and puzzles.

  • Jo Boaler, professor of mathematics at Stanford University. A search for her connected me to a free online course: How to Learn Math: for Students. (There is one for teachers and parents as well, to help them provide support, but it costs tuition.) The description says, “If you have had past negative experiences with math this will help change your relationship to one that is positive and powerful.” So I enrolled Claire. She is very excited to be taking a course at Stanford University!

I read a lot of griping about Common Core math on social media and in the news. Yet the way I was taught did not teach me to understand at a deeper level. I memorized functions and did not learn connections. I learned to do without understanding the reasons. When I saw this video, Common Core Math Explained, I could see the appeal. It is my hope that I recover from my past negative encounters with mathematics by re-learning math as Claire learns.

When Claire was five months old, we started going to Music Together classes. Prior to this, I could not carry a tune. I couldn’t start a song on key without music leading me. But we listened — over and over and over, hundreds of times, to the CDs. As a result, I internalized the sounds. I learned audiation, which “takes place when we hear and comprehend music for which the sound is no longer or may never have been present.” Now I can sing pretty confidently. I accomplished growth in the area of music, and I’m looking forward to the same with math.

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