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.

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