Thursday, August 26, 2010

Math Matters

matter - have significance. 
significant - likely to have a major effect

Faith: Farmer Brown had  559 sheep on his hill.  He added more and now has 834.  How many more did put on the hill?
This was the third story problem that we had done and I was sure we were smooth sailing because the other 2 went pretty well.
Simonne: Is that add or subtract?
Now, if I slowly replay the sequence of my thoughts, I recognize that this was the first moment of decision.  I decided to have a problem,  Deep inside me stirred an uneasy feeling.  I think, if I'm not mistaken, it was panic.  Yup, full scale panic.  I just didn't take notice of it at the time, but I certainly acted out of it. 
Faith: Well, what do you think?
Simonne: It's adding 
Faith: More panic.  What are you adding?
Simonne: 559 and 834 
Faith: How much would that be
Simonne: 1000 and something
Faith: Does that work in the story? 
Simonne: No.......It's subtraction
Faith: sigh
In between every question and every answer, there were doodles being perfected on the page in front of her. 
Faith: (What if she really doesn't get it?  She needs more practice and I've been too busy to make sure she practices and look at this, no generalization....)
Simonne: More doodles. 
Faith: Let's try that then and see 
Simonne: ok.  559 - 834 is ... 9 from 4, regroup the 5 ... 
Faith: (interrupts) let's try this again. Sigh.  (Don't give up, don't give up.)

10 minutes later. 
Faith: I'm not helping you anymore.  You know how to do this  My voice is not warm and inviting.
Simonne: Mommy, help me.  You were helping before...
Faith: no, you just wait for me to tell you what to do... You get $2 when you are done
.... whining, nagging,...I'm not sure which of us is doing what. 
Faith: Ok $3.  Just do it. (Am I accessing her motivation?  She is saving for that American Girl doll... )

20 minutes later
Faith: So if 559 sheep were on the hill and then there were 560, how many were added?
Simonne: one 
Faith: How did you know? 
Simonne: I counted. 
Faith: So if we had 559 sheep on the hill and then we have 834, how can we know how many more sheep the farmer got? 
Simonne: 560, 561, 562,.... I interrupted.  (Mark, I'm really being bone headed now.) you don't have enough fingers!.  She starts to make tally marks on the paper....

Let me give you context.  I've seen Simonne do 3 digit addition and subtraction pretty quickly without writing anything.  So 345 + 263 would go something like 345 adding 2 hundreds would be 545 then adding 6 tens would be 605 and adding 3 would be 608.  Her current answers are bordering on regression and I've seen that before (in another child) and had a similar panic.  Anyway, we eventually completed the problems we were working on.  Halfway through, I acknowledged the panic, and chatted with myself about it.  The bottom line is that I made Simonne's responses matter.  In other words, I made them significant, important. 

I have a love/apathy relationship with mathematics.  I enjoyed it in school because I didn't have to think about it.  Give me rules to follow and I'm good.  Not many things in school were as predictable.  Spanish and Literature surely were not.  Still, I really didn't understand math and came to find this out, the more of it I did.  Somehow, I was able to get reasonably good grades so I kept going, until I had 1 course short of a major in mathematics in my undergraduate degree.  I entered a period of enlightenment when I started teaching and really became enlightened when I stated having children.  We are all teaching mathematics the wrong way!  That was my revelation.  Unfortunately, I didn't really know the 'right' way, but explored many different alternative thinking/teaching methods that sounded wonderful in that lovely, romantic sort of way, the kind of thing that doesn't really happen in the real world.

Fast-forward a few years, and I'm working with my daughter on third grade mathematics.  These alternative, romantic teaching methods are slow, especially when the teacher is just learning them herself.   I can't abandon my new methods, but I can cover them in old attitudes.  I discovered a new equation:
effective technique +  not-useful attitude = ineffective technique, sometimes undesirable outcome

So my response was grounded in fear.  Fear that she wouldn't get it in time to go the grade 3 tests and do well enough so there is no harrassment from 'those people' who say things like 'Mrs Clarke, I don't agree with homeschooling but you seem to really have your act together.  You are very knowledgeable".  I'd love to tell them a few things... So fears of the 'system', fears of the math teacher's daughter not getting math, fears of my fears killing any math spark she might have, fears...  Funny how acting in fear creates the very thing you fear.

I'm looking at the fears, thinking, "Imagine that!" and thinking back to Jaedon.  Some time ago, I decided that his speaking, or, more recently, peeing and pooping in the toilet didn't matter.  I wanted it, I would work towards it, but I wasn't going to make its absence significant.  Instead, I made something else significant.  I decided the relationship I wanted to have with him was the most significant thing.  That determination frees me from the weight of his every response mattering.  He agrees or disagrees, it's all good.  He tries to work on his challenge or he does not, it's all good.

So back to math.  Simonne's internal process is so much more important to me than the 'correct answers' on a worksheet.  The more I focus on her process, the better I get at facilitating that process.  Most importantly, I can enthusiastically pursue what I want, and love every minute, not matter what her response. 

So today,
Faith If 280 people are at the party and they eat 3 hot dogs each, how many hotdogs are there?
Simonne: A lot
Faith: OK, so if everyone ate one hotdog, how many would we have?
Simonne: 280
Faith: So if everyone had 2 hotdogs, how many would we have had?
Simonne: 3 hundred and....
Now, upon reflection, I could really have relaxed into it there and let her work it through.  Next time... This time I redirected
Faith: So if there were 10 people at the party, and they each had a hotdog... What if they had 2?... and what about 3?  So if there were 280 people at the party and ...?
Simonne: 282? 
Faith: Ok, if we have 10 people at the party....?  How about if we have 5?  Let's draw that.  What about if we have 7?   If we have 13 people...? 
Simonne: Ohhh! We'll have another 280 hotdogs!

I'm glad we got there, but I truly had decided that it didn't matter.

Faith: So we have 127  tables at the party and each table has 2 chairs.  How many people got to sit? 
Simonne: This is just like the other one!

What are you making matter today?  Is it helpful and useful for you?  What else can you make matter that would really make a difference to your day?


  1. I love this post. It gets to the heart of what matters about learning and loving.
    What I found, in helping my kids learn math, is that they don't care about sheep on hills. They need it to be more concrete than that. They care about beating mom in Monopoly. They care about how many chips they each get if we divide the bag evenly by three.
    In my blog, , I write about ways that I have been working on enticing my kids to want to learn, and ridding myself of fear. It's not just dogs that can smell fear! Kids can, too! Have you read John Holt's book, "How Children Fail"? It's amazing. It think you'd really like it.
    Blessings, paisley

  2. Faith, Thank you so much for this post. I've spent the last couple of days making things matter significantly with less than stellar results. I've had a few "You know how to do this" moments; however, my words were closer to "what are you, stupid or something" (at least in tone) and they were directed at adult professionals.

    I'm not sure if it was panic as much as sense of urgency, but it definitely had it's roots in hanging on too tightly to results. In addition to the work I normally do, I was helping out in other areas on challenges that were ostensibly time critical. So, in addition to the more than full-time workload, I had some full-time work. I launched into hyper mode trying to pull people along quickly to ahh-hah moments.

    The bottom line is that you can't rush ahh-hah, not even with the communicative equivalent of shock-therapy. Sigh...

    I think that the core of the problem for me was taking responsibility for the results of others and feeling as though I had to somehow get them there in short order. The bigger problem was trying to do so from a position of influence and not authority. A common boneheaded move, but one that I'm intimately aware of and almost always avoid. Quite silly in retrospect.

    So, time to slow down and let go.

    As I read "You know how to do this!", I could absolutely hear my dad "helping" me with math. Not only did I not know how to do this, I wasn't even sure what "this" was.

    Reading you saying the same thing put a smile on my face.



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