If I can get disciplined enough to maintain a new posting series, it will be What I’ve Learned. Today the subject is What I’ve Learned While Teaching My Son Math.
At the beginning of the school year I decided to forge my own path through 6th grade math, using no pre-made curriculum at all. After two years and two different curricula, it just seemed like nothing would be a good fit until Older Son got a handle on the basics and started feeling confident about his ability to do math.
Besides, I told myself hopefully, how hard can it be?
Well . . .
It’s kind of hard. I am not disciplined enough to put in the preparation that I should. That translates into me trying to think up and write down the ten to twelve daily math problems, while Younger Son is hopping around the house because he finished his math in three minutes flat, and Older Son is getting distracted from his Reading or Writing or Whatever assignment by anything from the dog sleeping in the corner to the eraser shavings at his elbow, while I’m simultaneously thinking about the next subject we are going to cover and wondering how many we’ll get done before we have to leave for _______. /Fill in the blank with any one of myriad group activities./
So far it is worth it, though, because it’s working. I mean, I think it’s working.
I can’t be sure it’s working, because I haven’t been testing him and I only just resumed grading his assignments, and he doesn’t have classmates to compare with, and I don’t have a textbook with an end to aspire reaching.
But he seems to be making progress. He is keeping some concepts memorized on a more permanent basis lately. More importantly, he seems to master his anxieties and frustrations easier than he used to.
I’ve come to realize it was not the numbers giving Older Son so much trouble. It was the negative emotions firmly attached to the act of solving math problems. I’m not sure when the anxiety attached itself to math in his mind, but it had a very firm hold by the end of 3rd grade.
I wish I could say that pulling him out of brick-and-mortar solved the problem. But the truth is, I didn’t make any progress whatsoever in lessening his math anxiety in 4th or 5th grade. All I did was slog through teaching a perpetually upset pupil. My biggest mistake was to focus on completing the math curriculum, instead of focusing on my child’s unhealthy relationship with math.
If there is one thing Older Son has taught me, it is this: no matter how smart a child is, and no matter how many times you teach him a concept, if he works himself into enough of a lather, all those smarts and all that knowledge goes Straight. Out. The window.
I haven’t found the “secret recipe” or anything. Another year of maturity may have as much to do with his improved attitude as anything else. Also, there is still more progress to be made.
For what it’s worth, though, here is what I believed has helped so far:
A) Creating our own 6th Grade Math Outline by putting concept definitions, instructions, and examples in my son’s own words. I have to help sometimes, but most of the phrasing is his, typed by his hands. (Heck, I have to seek help online sometimes. Try writing an explanation of “square root” on the spot, and see if you don’t end up with something awkward like “the square root is the number that when multiplied by itself produces the number that is in that little checked-roof thingy.”)
B) Taking away key stressors for a while, even though those things are normally useful, even necessary. That meant no testing and no grading for the first semester. I checked his work and made sure he understood and corrected his errors, but I did not mark his work with the dreaded red pen, or any pen for that matter.
Also, he did no word problems and no geometry during that time. I know he needs to learn these things . . . but first things first.
In addition, I imposed no time limits or minimum number of problems. What’s that you said, child? In the last thirty minutes you’ve done exactly two problems? And oh look, they are both incorrect. Nevermind. You can work on it tomorrow.
Sometimes it took a whole week to correctly complete ten math problems. I had a hard time curtailing my own frustration when this happened, because he is smarter than that. He can do better. I know it! He is never getting anywhere at this pace!
I wish I could say I was totally zen about it when he got bogged down, but instead I’d snap and add to the already existing stress. There’s a balance between relieving stress and encouraging persistence, no doubt, but it’s mighty hard to find.
C) Hand-writing or hand-typing assignments. This helps for a many reasons. First, I can tailor to his exact level. The worksheet found online is too easy? Add a couple of zeros. Too hard? Do the reverse.
Second, and this surprised me: it’s not as big a deal to him when he gets something wrong. It’s just a dumb piece of paper with his mother’s scribble on it, I guess. It’s not his Official Math Workbook, irretrievably scarred with Proof of How Stupid He Is. (His opinion, not mine!)
Creating my own assignment also allows a personal touch. I don’t always make up problems from scratch; a pre-made worksheet can be a template. It just needs tweaking.
Now that I’m adding word problems to the mix, it’s a handy trick. I mean, really, who cares what total number of mangoes Raul has, if his ratio of mangoes to bananas is 3:1? Older Son doesn’t get his hackles up as quickly if the ratio problem asks how many tanks his side has, compared to the enemy. After all, World of Tanks is his favorite video game.
Finally, the biggest advantage to writing or typing your own assignments: you can finally make sure your child has enough room for his work. Running out of room was a major source of stress, believe it or not. Pre-made worksheets rarely provide enough space. Just do the work on a separate sheet of notebook paper, I would repeat. Over and over. For some reason, that frustrated him more. Ample room directly under the problem = a less-stressed child. Fine. Whatever. I’ll put one problem per sheet if that’s what it takes.
D) Changing my strategy because of its flaws. Letting Older Son focus on filling his 6th Grade Math Outline with rules and definitions, while simultaneously letting him do very few practice problems, was definitely not a long-term solution. Sixth grade math often requires several steps, especially long division using decimals. I neglected the wisdom of “practice makes perfect,” and I certainly noticed that “little practice makes lots and lots of careless errors.”
Soon into the second semester, things had to change. Now, he must complete at least ten problems per day. (Except for Thursdays, we are literally gone from 8:30am until 8:30pm. It’s STEM/Latin/ParkWithBHSF/TKD day.)
To be fair, it helps that the first semester resulted in a beefy outline. When he can’t remember a particular rule, he is actually beginning to refresh his own memory by looking at his 6th Grade Math Outline, instead of requiring me to hold his hand and walk him through it for the umpteenth time.
And the new emphasis on practice is working! I can tell because I’ve resumed grading. He even helps me figure out his percentage. He even took it in stride this week, when he earned a “D.” Aw, I stink at math, he said. But he said it in a voice that was only half-serious, praise God.
You do not stink at math, I responded. You are perfectly average in math. And can an average student earn “A’s”? I asked.
Yes, he answered begrudgingly.
Begrudging may sound like a bad thing to you. To me–a parent used to lamentations and gnashing of teeth–it sounds like victory.
End note: If you would like to see the 6th Grade Math Outline, detailing exactly what Older Son has covered thus far, I’m happy to share it in a separate post. Just let me know! I would have included it here, but this post has already grown far too long.