Wednesday, March 12, 2008


Minor crisis, I should say. More of a conundrum, really. Conundrum didn't seem snappy enough for a post title.

Big and I did some new work today: more complicated long division, resulting in repeating decimals. This wasn't frustrating for him, because he knows how to do it, but it was tedious. All those steps, and then you have to keep doing them. And doing them. And doing them, until finally a pattern emerges in the decimal and you can put your damn repeating bar up there and be done with the thing.

So he was trying to make it more entertaining, for him and for me, by personifying the numbers in various ways, by pretending he was dueling the problem with swords, by putting in lots of meaningless zeros as unnecessary place holders. All these small diversions resulted in a tense mama who kept directing him back to the problem in a businesslike and humorless way. It also resulted in a single problem taking twenty minutes to solve.

We were clearly at odds, and when he finally dissolved in tears, I lost my temper. Or maybe I lost my temper first, and then he dissolved. That seems more likely, somehow.

And then I tried to explain myself:

Long division is just something you have to do.

The only fun part about it is getting it done. Maybe it gets a little bit fun when you can do it really quickly, but that's only because you're getting it over with.

It's like practicing scales and arpeggios: nobody likes it, but you have to do it.

He eventually settled down and we did several more problems. In a businesslike and humorless way. Which was satisfying for me.

And that's when I had my crisis: Doesn't he deserve a teacher who loves what we're learning about? When I was a teacher, I would at least muster some enthusiasm for a subject, even if my heart wasn't particularly in it. Especially when some of the kids were reluctant. Doesn't my child deserve the same? From me, his teacher?

When I was a kid, I never paid attention in math class, because my mother was (and is) a gifted math teacher, and I knew I could just come home and have her explain it to me, and it would be crystal clear in about twenty seconds. Why bother listening to a thirty minute explanation in class, when I had a home tutor always ready and willing? And interested, I might add. Maybe she didn't find long division scintillating, but she certainly never would have told me that the only good part about it was getting it over with.

So now what? I do think he needs to do his long division relatively quickly, and that he would do well to learn how not to get distracted by all the wonderful and creative things that reside in his head. But I also want it to be fun for him, and I want to do better than telling him it's just something we have to do, because.

Maybe it's too much to ask. Everything can't be fun, and there are some things we just have to do. Like dishes, and long division. But I don't want my feelings about math to dictate his feelings about it. I believe I can do better, and I'd really love to hear from other homeschoolers about how they pull this off.

The amazing thing is that after the long division, we went on to this:

That's Word Roots: Latin Prefixes, Roots and Suffixes, by Cherie Blanchard, which was like dessert. He LOVES this work, and is finding all sorts of amazing connections between what he's learning about Latin and his French lessons, between words he knows, and words he's just now finding out about.

Dessert. Learning Latin was like having a piece of chocolate cake. For both of us, really. It was so relaxing, intriguing, and just plain fun to jump into the world of words.


shaun said...

I wish I had something brilliant to say on the subject. My own observation is simply that long division seems to bring many a homeschooler to tears, and it might be best not to derive too much homeschool philosophy from such a miserable topic. But then, I'm off the hook for several years now that Violet has mastered it.

Have you looked at the Ed Zaccaro math books -- they say something like you do. Math seems to be all practice, no music. He offers his books as the music. It's not hard to work them in to what you're doing.

If you have severe math anxiety, I would worry about passing that on to your kids. Otherwise, we all have likes and dislikes, and parents should get to have theirs just like anyone else. My kids are not usually shy about letting me know when something I like is not something they like, or vice versa. I like to think that my kids learn from my enthusiasm for learning in general. Maybe saying that "the best part is getting it over with" is not the best thing you'll ever say, but it's not going to stamp out a potential interest in math if you continue presenting resources to explore.

On the practical side of dealing with topics that are not my A1 favorites, we take several approaches. Sometimes I grit my teeth and force myself (dammit, we're going outside today!), some things I let my husband demonstrate enthusiasm for instead (he loves math), and some things I farm out to others. Signing the girls up for science classes has been the best thing ever! It's not that I don't care for science -- it was just too far down on my list to get any regular attention. My little one especially seems like a potential scientist -- I want her playing with bugs and magnets way more often than my personal inclinations would naturally lead to.

elsie deluxe said...

Shaun, Thanks so much for these thoughts. I'm not so sure you haven't said something brilliant. I didn't know about the Zaccaro books, and I'm going to see if I can get one today at the local teacher store.

I don't have math anxiety, but I realized last night that we're doing exactly the kind of math I hated as a child. So we're going to change things around. We'll do interesting, conceptual math four days, and practice problems on the fifth. (We had been doing the opposite, and I'm just not sure all that practice is necessary.)

When Big gets up, I'll tell him about the change in plans.

Thank you very much for taking the time to respond so completely.

Tara said...

Thanks so much for the book recommendation. It looks awesome. And all the best to you as you come into a new math plan.

Sandy said...

I can't say much about teaching math, but the idea of getting frustrated at a child for not just sitting down and getting through the task at hand sounds familiar to me. THere is a tension between wanting them to enjoy it, to love learning, and them learning that sometimes they have to suck it up and knuckle down. I remember going to a professional development workshop once where the guy commented that students don't always have to be having fun, that sometimes working hard and learning discipline is something they should experience, beacuse they'll see that it often leads to success. I sort of liked the statement, but it does just sound wrong, because part of me likes the idea of discipline and focus, and part of me loves seeing E's joy when she realizes that she can calculate the cost of 10 Webkins by adding a zero.

Granna Judy said...

You know what? I never liked math until it got to algebra. THEN it got interesting. The early stuff was just something to get through. Trouble is, I believe you really do need the foundation in order to easily succeed at the interesting, conceptual, fun stuff.

And I believe Big has to know how to do it, and do it easily, but your plan of conceptual some days and the other stuff other days sounds good. Maybe not quite a 4-1 ratio -- maybe 3-2? But a good idea