Exposé: My son’s moral protractor

Spoken by my younger son today:

“I don’t have a moral compass.

I have a moral protractor!”

protractor - 1

It’s moments like this that make a geek mother smile. Also, the fact that my neon protractor from eighth grade has somehow remained in my possession for thirty years is a point of pride.

Yes, the standard clear model is easier to use, but it’s less massively awesome. Like, totally.

If I were really cool, I’d have a slide rule handy to add to the math tool photo spread. Alas, I’m a product of the pocket calculator age. I did inherit my grandfather’s slide rule cuff links, however, making me capable of geek chic if I wear French cuffs.

The cuff links are purely decorative facsimiles of the venerable manual calculator, of course. That’s the first question everyone asks. Imagine how tiny those logarithm scales would have to be to fit on something that slips through a buttonhole!

°

That unforgettable Sci Fi story about a man who rediscovers how to perform calculations by hand

One of those works of fiction that I read innumerable years ago but I’ve never been able to forget was Isaac Asimov’s 1957 short story, “The Feeling of Power.” Set in the distant future when computers perform all calculations and design new technology without further input from man, it is the story of a humble technician who rediscovers the process of doing math on paper, by hand.

I had forgotten its author and the title, and was delighted to come across it in an old Science Fiction anthology I packed for pleasure reading on a trip.

While the narrative gist of a handful of stories and novels linger on in my memory, very few titles do the same. I’m one of those annoying people who says:

“You know, it’s that book about the guy who…”

Sometimes I follow up that gem with:

“I think the cover might have been blue?”

I may intrigue you, but I’m unlikely to be an efficient resource for putting the work into your hands. Unlikely, that is, unless I still own the hard copy, and the cover is, in fact, blue! If I find it (probably while you’re sitting at my dinner table), I’ll send it home with you, then promptly forget to whom I’ve loaned the book.

Returning to “The Feeling of Power,” I recommend it. It’s a short ten pages, and a quick read. I can see why it stuck in my mind so many years ago, but I also found much more to appreciate this time around. I remembered very strongly the tone of the ending, but had forgotten many details of the narrative.

It should be particularly appealing to anyone who loves math–or perhaps to those who find it hateful who would like to imagine it forgotten!–and to anyone who likes Sci Fi in general and Asimov in particular.

Here’s the particular anthology I brought on vacation. It was published in 1985.

Asimov was a prolific writer, and I’m certain “The Feeling of Power” appeared elsewhere in print. I actually thought I’d originally read this story in one of those elementary school reading textbooks full of disjointed works by a variety of authors. If anyone knows whether Asimov ever published in such volumes, I’d love to hear about it!

Books by my bedside 2017/09/14

I’ve noticed that I often bring up in conversation one or more of the fascinating books I’ve been reading lately, only to fail utterly at recalling titles or authors’ names. I’ll take this opportunity to at least have a handy reference available for anyone who cares to follow up on something I’ve said.

Just check my blog!

books-2017-08-2x-1-e1503620159745.jpg

Non-Fiction

History, Politics & Social Science

Anti-Education by Nietzsche, Friedrich

The Art of Worldly Wisdom by Gracián, Baltasar

Churchill & Orwell: The fight for freedom by Ricks, Thomas E.

College Disrupted:The great unbundling of higher education by Craig , Ryan

Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s history-making race around the world by Goodman, Matthew

Grand Hotel Abyss: The lives of the Frankfurt School by Jeffries, Stuart

Margaret Fuller: Bluestocking, romantic, revolutionary by Wilson, Ellen

Walden by Thoreau, Henry D.

Language

Pimsleur German I (audio CD)

Pimsleur Spanish I (audio CD)

Mathematics

Life of Fred: Pre-Algebra 0 with Physics by Schmidt, Stanley F.

 Books Math Life of Fred Prealgebra

Fiction

Anecdotes of Destiny by Isak Dinesen

Edge of Evil by Jance, J.A.

Finding Her Way (YA title) by Faigen, Anne

M.C. Higgins the Great by (YA title) by Hamilton, Virginia

The Odds of Loving Grover Cleveland (YA title) by Rebekah Crane*

Reading Notes:

I’ve been reading a fair amount for two disparate reasons. Continue reading

Welcome back to school; I miss you while you’re there!

I dislike sending my little guy back to school on the day after Labor Day. In direct contradiction to the nonsense spouted in television commercials, not all parents cheer to have their kids out of the house.

If I were selfish, I would educate both of my children at home, to suit my personality and my interests. I send the younger one to school instead because it suits his.

I miss our long, quiet summer mornings. There’s time for us, then, to sit down together over breakfast. I miss saying yes to late night stargazing and other adventures because there’s no need to worry about a busy schedule.

I miss DS2‘s good company around the house during the day. He’s blessed with great wit and a loving temperament. He’s generous with his hugs.

I am excited to begin the new school session with DS1 here at home. He studies year ’round, but our schedule changes to a different pattern every September, December, January, and June. This choice is energizing, and keeps subjects feeling fresh.

DS1 is a pleasure to keep at home with me. We’re both fairly introverted, so we often work quietly, side by side. Quietly, that is, until one of us gets excited about a project or idea. Continue reading

Books by my bedside 2017/08/12

I’ve noticed that I often bring up in conversation one or more of the fascinating books I’ve been reading lately, only to fail utterly at recalling titles or authors’ names. I’ll take this opportunity to at least have a handy reference available for anyone who cares to follow up on something I’ve said.

Just check my blog!

Non-Fiction

History

The Bad-ass Librarians of Timbuktu : and their race to save the world’s most precious manuscripts by Hammer, Joshua

White Trash : the 400-year untold history of class in America by Isenberg, Nancy

Language

Pimsleur German I (audio CD)

Mathematics

Life of Fred: Kidneys by Schmidt, Stanley F.

Life of Fred: Liver by Schmidt, Stanley F.

Life of Fred: Mineshaft by Schmidt, Stanley F.

Life of Fred: Fractions by Schmidt, Stanley F.

Life of Fred: Decimals and Percents by Schmidt, Stanley F.

Memoir

Casting Lots : creating a family in a beautiful, broken world by Silverman, Susan

Fiction

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Backman, Fredrik

Books 2017.08.12 fiction - 1

Reading Notes:

I haven’t been feeling very well for a week or so (not interesting to talk about), but one happy consequence of spending hours on the couch is that I’ve had more time for casual reading.

US History of White Trash

After two weeks of grumpy interactions with Isenberg’s White Trash, I let it go when my digital library loan expired and I don’t intend to finish it. There’s some interesting history here, but I found myself annoyed by what felt like intentional misunderstandings by the author more often than I gained insight into America’s past.

Typical example: stating that Thomas Jefferson was failing to enact political change while describing an episode of gradual political change. I think the author meant that Jefferson should have done more, and more quickly, but I quickly tired of watching the author grind her axe.

The Bad-ass Librarians of Timbuktu

Now here’s a book I couldn’t return to the library before completion.

To me, Timbuktu means “the ends of the Earth.” Timbuktu is synonymous with exotic foreign locales. Timbuktu is a place I knew by name before this book but with little understanding of its unique place in the history of learning and culture.

Bad-ass Librarians was written by a journalist, and it sometimes reads like a series of articles glued together to make a book. It’s worth reading anyway.

The provocative title aside, this is the story of ordinary (and extraordinary) people in Mali fighting back against a jihadist invasion of the region around Timbuktu. This book celebrates the thinking person’s ability to triumph over willful ignorance and wanton violence.

Here’s a rare celebration of centuries of African scholarship as glimpsed by the West. The threat to its tangible artifacts—a treasure trove of rare, priceless manuscripts—by Islamist extremists made my heart pound. I’m left with a yearning to see some of these documents for myself, and a renewed interest in learning some Arabic.

I can think of no better way for me, personally, to express my wish for peace in this world than through the cross-cultural sharing of books.

Adoption & Jewish motherhood in Casting Lots

Casting Lots came to me by way of a philanthropical organization that sends free books to Jewish families. Usually, it’s the kids who get the loot, but this month, there was a gift for me.

I am familiar with comedienne Sarah Silverman. I was intrigued to read that the author—her sister, Rabbi Susan Silverman—is considered “the funny sister.” There’s certainly a family resemblance, including some of the crude punchlines that I most associate with Sarah.

In spite of that (because I get why potty humor is funny, but it’s not my first choice for entertainment), I enjoyed most of the time I spent with Casting Lots. It is, at its core, an engaging personal story. Silverman would be someone interesting to have a cup of coffee with.

The subject of international adoption is one I’ve considered for myself and observed through friends and family, and it is genuinely moving to follow her along this path to parenthood.

Her take on Judaism in general resonates less with me, and I see this story as a readable tale that happens to be written by a Jewish woman, not a Jewish parenting book, per se.

Mathematics textbooks, specifically, the Life of Fred

I wrote about this the other day, but I’m brushing up on my pre-algebra terms and presentation in preparation for working with the child* of a friend as a math tutor.

Life of Fred is a nontraditional approach to teaching math. Author Stanley F. Schmidt, PhD, presents the subject from elementary arithmetic up through college level courses in Linear Algebra and Real Analysis, all told through the lens of a 5 ½ year old professor named Fred at fictional KITTENS University.

Yeah, most of it really is as wacky as it sounds.

And yet: my younger son has read many of these books for fun, and more than once. He’s begging me to buy the Life of Fred: Calculus textbook so he can finally learn Fred’s origin story.

I’m in no rush to get my elementary schooler into calculus, but I’m impressed by a math book that promotes such a devoted following in a child who regularly declares himself averse to “being taught” anything.

We’ve had the elementary and intermediate arithmetic series for years, but I’ve just ordered the three volume pre-algebra series (Pre-Algebra 0 with PhysicsPre-Algebra 1 with Biology, and Pre-Algebra 2 with Economics) and Life of Fred: Beginning Algebra Expanded Edition.

I can’t speak to using this collection as a stand-alone mathematics curriculum, because that isn’t how I chose to use these books with my home educated child.

I do think that the method employed—every math problem to be solved is presented in the context of a character’s real life and search for solutions—might be exactly the right remediation for a child who has internalized the notion that learning math means memorizing occult procedures.

I spent the better part of two days perusing all of my current mathematics texts, then more hours compiling lists and ordering next year’s curricula in this and other subjects for DS1 and The Scholar.

The math curriculum I did use extensively with DS1 is also pictured above. (Beast Academy, by Art of Problem Solving.) Because I’m so familiar with them, I only picked out chapters and exercises for The Scholar to begin with; I didn’t read extensively from any of these. I mention them now because I can wholeheartedly recommend BA as a complete home school curriculum. They are also suitable as enrichment for a weak classroom program, or a student who needs a challenge.

*I’ve dubbed her The Scholar

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.