Poring over pre-algebra textbooks to appease my non-math anxiety

I read six math textbooks yesterday from cover to cover, and I perused at least half a dozen more.

Math books textbook Laundry

Observe that the clean laundry was folded onto one of the stacks of textbooks, because it had to be done, but there was no energy left to move any of these objects elsewhere around the house

Why would I do such a thing? It’s because I’m feeling unprepared for pre-algebra. That’s making me anxious.

Wait, what?!?

I’ve said it before, but I’ve also learned that I must repeat it: I’m a lady who is good at math.

And, I’m going on about that again because I’m undertaking something new.  My current anxiety hinges on my ability to impart my knowledge of, and suitable appreciation for, the application of math… to someone else’s child.

A friend and her daughter are going to learn at home this year, like DS1 and I (and millions of other American kids) do. In addition to offering general advice, and pointing my friend toward excellent textbooks and home school collaboratives, I’ve agreed to help the girl by teaching Pre-Algebra.

As usual, when my friend floated this idea a year ago, I enthusiastically agreed. I offered encouragement, pointed out the pitfalls of which I’m aware, and sent her a steady stream of supporting research for whatever it was we talked about while all of this was theoretical.

It’s pretty fair to call me an enthusiast. In what area of interest? Well, whatever might be my fascination of the moment. I’m a serial enthusiast, and my intellectual appetite often exceeds my physical stamina.

Also, I work a project until I’m thoroughly exhausted; then I walk away* depleted. And I do walk away. It’s common for me to return to areas of interest after these desertions, but I don’t take them all up again.

My interest in a subject rarely subsides, but my activity in that given area rarely draws a shallow curve or a sensible straight line of steady progress. Jagged peaks and desolate valleys do a better job of depicting my levels of effort over time.

You can see it on my blog. I’ve considered composing posts and spacing them out on a sensible schedule of distributed areas of interest, but… I don’t really want to. Because, when I’m obsessed with camping equipment, or studying German, or maximizing minivan efficiency for a road trip, or the vital importance of true mastery of algebraic concepts, that is what I want to talk about, almost exclusively

until the next month, when I move on to the next thing. It’s fair to describe me as somewhat obsessive. I also accept the label of dilettante.

Which brings me back around to what I’ve done. I’ve hitched a young lady’s wagon to my erratic star, and it’s making me nervous.

I’m not a math teacher. I’m only marginally reliable. What have I done?

And yet…

…my young friend, whom I’ll call The Scholar, is exhibiting patterns I expected from the story I heard about her school experience. I gave her a series of pre- and post-tests from my various textbooks, and here’s what I uncovered:

  • She sees a novel problem, and she’s inclined to shut down. She sees each one as an opportunity to be judged a failure, not a chance to learn a new way to answer her own questions in the future.
  • She was given rules to memorize for calculating answers, but no explanation for why such rules work (or has no recollection of the explanations.) Math is a set of magical black boxes she’s supposed to carry around forever, weighing her down instead of providing tools she can use to accomplish much more with less effort.
  • She asks me if her answer is “bad.” She means, “incorrect,” but her feelings are out of alignment with the scale of the mistake.

When The Scholar asked if her math was “bad,” I pointed out that she wasn’t spitting on babies and kicking puppies. Making a mistake means she didn’t know what to do, or she didn’t do it right all the way to the logical conclusion. Incorrect? Yes. In pre-algebra, we are actively seeking convergent answers! But this is not a moral failing.

Life is full of emotionally fraught situations that put us through a wringer. Math isn’t one of them. Either we know how to proceed, or we learn—or look up—what to do. This should actually be a carefree process in the realm of feelings. This is purely intellectual.

The bad feelings here are a result of prior training. I think this is what happens when math is taught by someone with a phobia who doesn’t love, or at least appreciate, the subject.

So I’m not a math teacher, but I’m going to take a swing at this. Based upon the evidence I’ve gathered from my sheaf of pre-tests, my influence is likely improve the situation. It’s possible that it already has.

You see, one instruction I’d given The Scholar was to please indicate near each test section any strong reactions provoked by the content. A lot of those she recorded were negative. But a few problems were annotated, “fun!” That’s heartening to see, and it surprised her mom.

It’s been a long time since The Scholar enjoyed any element of her math education. We’re definitely going to include some of these “fun” puzzles in her upcoming assignments. All computational skills practice will benefit her. Puzzles and well-designed apps can offer her skills practice with less pain.

I could go on at even greater length about the positive qualities of the math curricula I’ve been perusing. As you can see from my photos, we own more than one set of elementary texts. I couldn’t even lay hands upon DS1‘s pre-algebra book (publisher Art of Problem Solving‘s Prealgebra) for my photo shoot. He and his grandfather were still busy with it and couldn’t be bothered to give it up on my (frivolous) account.

Math books textbook Life of Fred

Life of Fred

For a child who’s learned to hate math, I can’t recommend strongly enough a perusal of Life of Fred (Stanley Schmidt’s utterly unconventional collection) and/or the comic-book formatted Beast Academy series (another contribution from Art of Problem Solving.)

Math books textbook BA

Beast Academy

It doesn’t matter if the stated age range is “beneath you.” These books are fun to read, and I’d guess even most educated adults would learn something new about a subject they consider mastered by spending time with them. I did.

Upon reflection, I’m really grateful that my latest project will give me another turn through the workaday skills of pre-algebraic math, and in the company of a bright and unconventional kid like The Scholar.

I think we’re going to have a lot of fun.

 

*Perhaps sometimes better described as: I fall down and lie at rest and let the subject move away on its own.

5 German pop songs for learning Deutsches Vokabular. Bonus: Embarrasses the kids!

Hopefully this won’t get me reported to the authorities for my abusive behavior, but I’ve been casting about for something new to enliven my study of German. I decided on pop songs. I’m specifically aiming to reduce my inhibitions when speaking this summer in a German language immersion environment. I think my best bet is conducting my learning in the most playful manner I can devise.

There has been a lot of acting out dialogs from German Readers and the Pimsleur CDs*. DS2 is not clear on why I keep involving him in my shenanigans, but melodramatic German dialogues conducted with yourself are just crazy. When done with your child, they’re home schooling!

Just when your teen thinks you can’t get any more embarrassing, you add singing out loud in German to your repertoire. I even do it in the car in the school parking lot when I’m waiting to pick up DS2.

Yeah, I’m that kind of mom.

My new playlist, Deutsche Popmusik:

I found lyrics for all of these songs online in the original Deutsch and in English translation. Try MetroLyrics.

1) So ein schöner Tag (Fliegerlied)

I chose a version performed by Zillertaler Dirndljäger found on iTunes.

We have to begin with Fliegerlied. More properly titled, “So ein schöner Tag (Fliegerlied)“, the name translates to Such a Nice Day (Aviator’s Song.) I played the song previews on iTunes to choose the one I liked best of the many covers of this song. Be sure you search for both “So ein schöner Tag” and “Fliegerlied” to see every version of this track.

I first heard this song at Waldsee family week where my son and I went to learn German in 2015. They played this song. They played it a lot. There are coordinating hand motions, too. And I liked it all! Any time a party atmosphere could be conjured in the Waldsee “Village,” it was, and the disco music flowed.

Personally, I find Fliegerlied charming and catchy. I couldn’t figure out all the words properly by ear, not even with a teaching session by the music leader early in the week. I got the gist of the lesson that we were singing about something that flies and having a good day.

Fliegerlied turns out to mean “aviator” or “airman.” Obviously not the easiest word to guess via mime. This bouncy ditty is great for picking up quickly as it repeats… and repeats… and repeats a few lyrics. Just try not to get this one stuck in your head.

I have a very high tolerance for song repetition, so proceed cautiously if you don’t. Fliegerlied is an Ohrwurm (ear worm; a song that gets stuck in your head) for sure. Waldsee gets full credit for this song being on my list. It’s the first one I’d recommend for a cheerful student of German.

2) 99 Luftballons

Performed by Nena; more than 99 versions found on iTunes!

You thought this one would be first, right?

99 Luftballons was an international hit in 1984, and it doesn’t need any more introduction or description from me. They play this one regularly at Waldsee, too. Unless you’re Captain Kirk or ein Kriegsminister, what’s not to like? You’ll be able to discuss war, balloons, and UFOs with the new vocabulary.

3) Eisbär

Original version by Grauzone is on iTunes; search both Eisbär and Eisbaer to find every cover.

I believe this will be the first song I memorize completely in German. I’ve had it two days and I can almost recite it by heart. I just looked at the lyrics I downloaded and did a quick count, and I think there are only 20 unique words in Eisbär, most of which are obvious (Eisbär=”ice bear”=polar bear) or easy beginner words (mussen=have to, but sounds conveniently like “must”; kalt=cold.) Learn two verbs: schreien (screaming) and weinen (crying) and you’ll understand the whole song.

Admittedly, this song is my least favorite on the playlist from a musical perspective. The music is repetitive, too electronic for my taste, and the song feels longer than it should be.

4) Wir Sind Wir

By Paul van Dyk featuring vocals by Peter Heppner; ordered CD single from Amazon.CD Wir Sind Wir Musik

I saw the video of this song online as I searched for my German pop songs. This one has slower tempo and more complex lyrics. We Are Who We Are is the title in English. The lyrics poetically describe lingering societal issues from the reunification of east and west Germany and how the people are responding. I’d describe its temper as somber but hopeful. Since I’m an optimist, I like it on principle for noble subject matter. The singer also enunciates very clearly—super helpful for the language learner. It’s really easy to follow along with his vocalized lyrics, which isn’t true of all these songs.

5) Ich Will

Available on iTunes; performed by Rammstein.

I’m not even checking to see if anyone has covered this song. I think you must listen to the original or give it a pass. This is heavy metal music, quite different than everything else on the playlist. The video I viewed online was downright creepy and not my cup of tea, but the song translates as cruel but not vulgar. I study around my kids, so really salty language would eliminate a song for my situation.

If  you enjoy metal—or can get past the growling intensity here to memorize the lyrics—you’ll be rewarded with several useful additions to your vocabulary. This guy WANTS (wollen, to want, to intend; Ich Will translates to I Want) a lot of stuff from the audience. He states that emphatically in the present tense (plural du– form.)

I might be growling it rudely at people, but I will never forget how to say “I want” auf Deutsch after hearing this song a few times.

Useful vocabulary includes “I want to disturb the peace;” ich will die Ruhe stören. And, in case I am robbing a small group of you, “I want to see your hands!”

“Ich will eure Hände sehen!”

Actually, I’ve just realized, this will come in handy with the kids, too. Now how do I say, “I want to see your beds made!”…

* Can’t imagine the Pimsleur lesson dialogues acted out dramatically? Try pretending you’re interrogating a suspected spy while repeatedly asking each other:

  • “Do you speak German?”
  • “Do you speak English?”
  • “Are you an American?”

Yeah, the kids LOVE it. Ha!

Home education as a radical act

You* have the right to educate your own children.

Did you realize that?

It can be a source of paralyzing terror to even the most highly educated modern American, but teaching one’s children at home is the right and privilege of every parent.

I wouldn’t recommend availing oneself of this right, however, unless one feels called to the challenge. Teaching your children is a challenge. Let no blog or expert tell you otherwise! But, if you undertake this task, it may be the most important thing you ever do. If your child is doing fine, s/he might do even better in a personalized mix of classes designed à la carte. If your child is failing within the system, you may not have a better option than the radical one to educate your child at home.

radical adjective rad·i·cal \ˈra-di-kəl\

a :  very different from the usual or traditional :  extreme

b :  favoring extreme changes in existing views, habits, conditions, or institutions

c :  associated with political views, practices, and policies of extreme change

d :  advocating extreme measures to retain or restore a political state of affairs the radical right

I’m not a zealot on the subject of home education. I have two kids, one enrolled in school, and one who learns at home. Both of my children attended preschool and kindergarten. We never sought to keep them away from other people; we aren’t hiding at home to avoid the realities of the diverse and populous world.

My son learns at home because it works for him. He is learning, and, unlike when he left school, he is thriving. He is an introvert, so his social needs are easily met with his group classes and private meet-ups outside of typical school hours. He is also a logical thinker, and a practical sort. He realized in early elementary school that it was quicker and more efficient to get schoolwork done without the distraction of other kids. He would rather spend time with his peers when he’s free to interact with them, getting his academic work done in privacy and peace.

Real life and the professional world allow for this kind of personalization in a way that modern institutionalized schooling does not. Some jobs involve constant contact and communication (sales); some jobs demand a tolerance for solitude (working on a oil rig, say, or in a fire lookout tower); the vast majority of jobs fall somewhere in between.

There’s nothing novel about the fact that human beings are individuals with unique characteristics and strengths. The strange conceit is the Industrial Age school that insists every square peg insert itself into its identical round hole; if the peg doesn’t fit, it is the peg that has failed. The hole bears no responsibility for its failure to be round!

People who believe schools, as they are today, are the only way to educate children would do well to note that the common institutional school is at most a few hundred years old. Human beings were finding ways to educate children, including providing formal academic instruction, for thousands of years before that. This is a beautiful illustration of Maslow’s hammer: every problem looks like a nail when your only tool is a hammer.

Emphatically, and with gusto, let me state that I believe in education, and a rigorous, fairly traditional education at that. The standards my kids are expected to meet before we set them free into adulthood include:

  • mastery of written and verbal communication in their native tongue,
  • mathematics sufficient to succeed as 21st century professionals,
  • ability to communicate in at least one foreign language,
  • competence with a musical instrument,
  • knowledge of history and human accomplishments,
  • knowledge of and practical experience with science,
  • study of philosophy and its application to logical/critical thinking,
  • proficient use of and ability to program computers,
  • and physical health and self-care.

We study year-round, and we consistently exceed the hours of instruction mandated by our state, but this doesn’t define our success as home scholars/educators. We are successful because we are giving this child the support he needs to maximize his own potential, academically and personally.

My child learns, for the most part, because he’s excited and motivated to do so. His success is his own. While we, as parents, asserted our authority to define the required goals to be worked toward if he wants to continue learning at home, how he reaches these goals is a process in which the child is an equal participant.

Evaluations, tests, and school structures are mere tools to be employed toward the real goal: the education of our children. Every discussion should bear this in mind; every policy should be crafted to serve the actual needs of our children. It’s shocking how rare this is in practice.

If your child isn’t learning—if s/he isn’t receiving the education s/he needs—consider undertaking to provide it yourself, and be willing to work outside the status quo until you accomplish what your child needs. Systemic failure to endow children with the tools they need to be successful adults and citizens is a threat to the fabric of our republic and the health of the individual.

Have you personally had to address this threat? How are you meeting your child’s educational needs? Have you had to take radical steps to meet them?

*Americans