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25 Oct 2005 - 20:48

Susan on parents getting kids through math class


By way of background, Susan's mathematically gifted son, who is in 5th grade, is taking 8th grade algebra. Susan's description of his class jibes with my own experience and with those of other parents:


Even with bright kids it is apparent to me that the math parent can seriously make or break the deal.

The other day math kid came home with homework (Algebra 1) where the chapter took a distinctly intense leap in difficulty (distance, rate, and time word problems.) Even Dad (who made A's in Calculus in high school) was surprised at how difficult they were. Dad looked in other Algebra texts that we have collected (Saxon, Dolciani, that other one that we talk always talk about...)to find similar problems, but had some difficulty finding the right level of intensity. I happened to have just bought a book called How to Solve Word Problems in Algebra by Mildred and Tim Johnson, which happened to have a chapter on time, rate and distance problems with several types of examples and then practice (with the answers and explanations nearby.)

Of course Dad was coming home late so I was alone with this stuff. I had him take a shot at the practice ones in which he whined, "There's not enough information! You can't do these!" Because if he can't do them at 11, then they can't be done, or so he believes. He looked for examples beforehand to see if he could figure it out and lo, and behold, the lightbulb started to come on (without me, thank God.) He had to go back to one or more of the examples a few times and one time he just couldn't figure it out at all, but looked at the answer and explanation and immediatley saw how to do it. This took over an hour, but he was motivated because he was actually learning something new and getting it.

On the quiz the next day there was a very similar problem to the one he worked on out of the practice book and so he had no problem with it. Later, it was learned that he and one other child made A's (he missed one. A dumb mistake) while the rest made a variety of scores including some 30's and 40's. The teacher explained that some of the kids had never asked for help and would probably need to be taking it over next year.

We are lucky. If my husband didn't check every single homework problem for understanding, as well as accuracy, and we didn't have our own copy of the textbook to read, I'm sure he would have been included as one of ones failing to make the cut. I can't imagine how lousy he would feel and since he is in grade school still it would be very difficult explaining to him that he isn't stupid.

What is aggravating about this kind of stuff is that the math itself is probably not beyond most of these kids, but the maturity to know when or how much you need extra help is unlikely to be there before high school. So, I can't help but think that some kids will be shut down pretty quickly based on that alone.

Along with that, the fact that the textbook took this intimidating leap without thoroughly explaining the concept (as the supplemental book that I purchased did so well) probably knocked all but the kids with math parents at home right off their game.

I'm beginning to think that hovering parents are the key until some kind of self-motivation kicks in. By then, you can let them fly because you figure they've got a good base and they can always return to it.




This is exactly what we're up against, only our kids aren't particularly encouraged to ask for help. The teacher actually made a joke about this early on. "I don't like it when you ask me questions," she said. That was a joke.

Our accelerated course, which is the only course taught at roughly the same level as math courses in high-achieving countries, is defined, from the get-go, as a course for mathematically talented kids. Kids who just naturally have it.

Christopher does not naturally have it.

The only way he's going to get it is through teaching.

That's why I have to keep 2 steps ahead of him. I have to learn all this stuff (which, yes, I'm enjoying, but still) just to have a shot at pulling him through this course.

Interesting, though, what Susan says about high school.

I have a terrific article by Willingham about kids not knowing what they don't know (I've been planning to get it posted for awhile).

I wonder if, once Christopher reaches high school, he'll be able to tell what he knows & doesn't know better than he can now.

At the moment, it's hopeless. He has zero idea whether he knows something well enough to work a problem on a test. Zero. And he's over-confident, thinking he understands and/or knows something he doesn't. Plus his teacher does not seem to do much, if any, guided practice in class, so I don't get the sense that a whole lot of Probing for Understanding is happening there.

She covers the material in class; he's supposed to show up knowing it the next day. (This is the way it's always been done; I'm sure his teacher learned math the same way.)

Sunday night I let Christopher do his math homework by himself, because I wanted to take the dogs for a run and I needed to pick up Jimmy & Andrew at their Program and Christopher was going over to Daniel's house and I forget the rest. A thousand things.

So he did his homework on his own.

I checked it the next morning, and virtually everything was wrong.

I asked if he'd understood the teacher's explanation. He said 'no.'

I asked if she had them do any practice problems in class. He said 'no.'

I demand a refund.


And don't even get me started on the Return of Ms. Roth, the English teacher.


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"I checked it the next morning, and virtually everything was wrong. I asked if he'd understood the teacher's explanation. He said 'no.' I asked if she had them do any practice problems in class. He said 'no.'"

This is a familiar scenerio in our home. And since the teacher doesn't really check to see if they got a problem right or wrong a major gap can emerge and the teacher not know for quite a while. The parent has to catch it. Also, my son told me that the other girl who made an "A" told him that her parents work with her. Yeah, no kidding.

Seriously, I wonder if they aren't just culling the herd sometimes. In middle school.

-- SusanS - 25 Oct 2005


Seriously, I wonder if they aren't just culling the herd sometimes. In middle school.

I think its more a question of them being unable to teach the herd with their inefficient techniques.

-- KDeRosa - 25 Oct 2005


Also, my son told me that the other girl who made an "A" told him that her parents work with her. Yeah, no kidding.

you betcha

-- CatherineJohnson - 26 Oct 2005


Our school, as I've said a zillion times now, consciously, deliberately, and with intent (hey! I've read John Grisham, too!) culled 35% of the Phase 4 kids between grade 5 & 6.

-- CatherineJohnson - 26 Oct 2005


That was the plan, and they did it.

-- CatherineJohnson - 26 Oct 2005


Christopher's gonna get creamed possibly because the teacher is having the kids do the next extended problem in class.

There's no way he can do an extended problem on his own.

-- CatherineJohnson - 26 Oct 2005


I just have to hope that only 5% of the class can.

-- CatherineJohnson - 26 Oct 2005


Of course, I don't think any of them is going to invent modular arithmetic on the spot.

-- CatherineJohnson - 26 Oct 2005


Out-loud distributive property problems Word document

-- CatherineJohnson - 26 Oct 2005


In the midst of my desperation I suddenly remembered a RUSSIAN MATH technique: systematic 'Out-Loud' problems.

Each problem set opens with a set of Out-Loud problems, which are problems so simple you can do them out loud. (aka mental math, but it's a little different in that they aren't just doing computations; they're doing algebra out-louds, distributive property out-louds, etc.)

Christopher desperately needs lots more practice on the distributive property in all its many guises, and is violently opposed to doing more practice.

I'm not willing to let him fail a test as a 'natural consequence' because I'm pretty sure he's going to be failing an extended problem or two or three, AND because MATH, in the immortal words of Ken, IS BRUTALLY CUMULATIVE, which means I don't want to let him flunk a test on the distributive property and then try to teach it on the rebound.....

So I need help.

Suddenly it came to me: Out loud problems!

Christopher is already used to doing them (I've been taking him through RUSSIAN MATH a bit, doing whichever lesson is closest to the Prentice-Hall lesson--and we always do the Out Loud problems).

The other idea I'm using comes from Kumon & RUSSIAN MATH both: instead of mixing up the problems, I wrote whole columns of the exact same kind of problem. (That's what I meant by 'systematic out loud problems.'

The first column has 7 problems like these:
6 (x - 3)

2nd column:
-3 (x + 2)

3rd column:
-4 (3-x)

4th column:
-3 (-x -2)

Obviously, he's having a horrific time distributing negative factors; it's awful.

RUSSIAN MATH devotes a whole lesson to demonstrating & then practicing the idea that:
3 - 2 = 3 + (-2).

But Christopher's class glossed over this as if it were nothing more important, or more difficult, than a concept like: any letter of the alphabet can be a variable, not just 'x'.

There's just no metacognitive awareness anywhere in the class. The kids don't have it; the book doesn't have it; the teacher doesn't have it.

It's the blind leading the blind.

-- CatherineJohnson - 26 Oct 2005


btw, I meant to add that I don't think a tutor can get a kid through a course like this, unless you had the tutor in to the house at least twice a week.

-- CatherineJohnson - 26 Oct 2005


At a minimum.

-- CatherineJohnson - 26 Oct 2005


"Our school, as I've said a zillion times now, consciously, deliberately, and with intent (hey! I've read John Grisham, too!) culled 35% of the Phase 4 kids between grade 5 & 6."

And each of those zillion times I am still dumbfounded. "deliberately, and with intent" This is worse than incompetence.

If kids do poorly in math, then it must be the kids, right? It couldn't possibly be the curriculum and the teachers? The idea of a math brain is a real cop-out. I can see life getting more difficult for kids once they get to algebra, but there are a lot of things that can be done in the earlier grades to make the transition easier.

Many of the problems arise because they go so slowly in the lower grades. Then they are forced to cram in a lot of new material to get even half-way close to preparing the kids for high school. Our public school provides only some algebra for some kids in 8th grade. I don't know what they think. Do they think this is good enough? Ignorance is no excuse.

-- SteveH - 26 Oct 2005

WebLogForm
Title: Susan on parents getting kids through math class
TopicType: WebLog
SubjectArea: HighSchoolMath, MiddleSchoolMath
LogDate: 200510251647