kitchen table math, the sequel: “Triplets” Homework – What does it teach?

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

“Triplets” Homework – What does it teach?

I hate to start the school year with such a cynical attitude, but I had a negative reaction to my fifth-grader’s homework today.

There were no written instructions, but apparently the assignment was to write down what each set of three words have in common. Here are a few samples of the “triplets”:
1. 4-GHI, 8-TUV, 2-ABC
2. Antonio, Francisco, Juan
3. beaver, tasse, greave
4. pumpkin, city in Florida, 7th U.S. president

For some of these, looking up the words in a dictionary can help you find the answer, so that’s good. (I learned that another meaning of beaver is “a piece of armor covering the lower part of the face”. This was the fifth meaning listed right after the slang term for, uh, you know what.) Maybe one reason why I didn’t like this homework is because it reminded me of my daughter’s need to improve her dictionary skills.

Anyway, she was struggling with this and it was taking too long so I began to question if it was a waste of time.

Maybe someone here can enlighten me and explain how this is more than a type of trivial pursuit game.

Answers: 1. buttons on a phone, 2. add “San” and these are cities, 3. parts of armor, 4. “Jack"


triplets homework

puzzle

47 comments:

Catherine Johnson said...

oh boy

this homework assignment would have put me in a very, very bad mood

Catherine Johnson said...

This assignment is so ludicrous I'm tempted to have a bad mood on your behalf.

Catherine Johnson said...

Because that's the kinda friend I am!

Catherine Johnson said...

We have GOT to have a ktm-2 shindig one of these days.

In person.

Maybe we could rent out Madison Square Garden.

Catherine Johnson said...

OK, seriously.

I see no reason on Earth why any parent should have to do this assignment in 5th grade.

SteveH said...

OK, I give up. What's number 4?

This is fifth grade? Can you imagine what it will do to a child who gets no help from a parent? Did the teacher tell the kids that this is a "fun" assignment, or a "real" assignment? If it's a real assignment, then how is the child supposed to feel if he/she cannot get it done?

Kids want to be good students but teachers don't show them how. They give them assignments that require skills and knowledge they don't have.

After hours of work, a student might get to class and find out that the teacher didn't expect them to spend hours(!) on the assignment - meaning that the assignment was not that important.

If it IS important, then what specific skills are they developing? Asking parents for the answers? Actually, most parents would answer the questions based on extensive background knowledge. Content knowledge and skills are important, not Googling.

VickyS said...

I did this assignment before I looked at Tex's answers. Here is what I came up with:

1. 4-GHI, 8-TUV, 2-ABC
Alphanumeric patterns with a number in front, and three consecutive letters at the end. No, I did not think of a phone.

2. Antonio, Francisco, Juan
Spanish boys' names

3. beaver, tasse, greave
No clue. Never even considered looking in a dictionary.

4. pumpkin, city in Florida, 7th U.S. president
This seemed totally random to me. I would have answered "??"

This assignment is insane.

But not as insane, if I may be so bold, as my 6th grader's art assignment on the first day of school. The teacher gave all the kids bubble gum (well, all except the three with braces--they got clay). They had to chew it, spit it out, and sculpt it into something using a toothpick...and then she told them: this is your first, only and last time you will chew gum in school.

(No, they did not make my son with braces chew clay. He got to warm it up in his hands.)

Vicky

Anonymous said...

People wonder why it only takes me 3-4 hours to home school my kids while the public schools have your kids for 7 hours and they still have the nerve to hand out silly homework.

This kind of assignment would send me straight to the school board.

Yikes.

SteveH said...

We need to resurrect the idea of bad homework awards.

SusanS said...

My son got this type of assignment a lot in fifth grade. Then, the teacher would add the final insult and not collect or even discuss it. It happened constantly with this teacher. I was glad for it to be over.

Busywork just sucks the life out of kids' brains, especially when they come to school to learn. We've had much less of that nonsense in middle school.

Tex said...

We have GOT to have a ktm-2 shindig one of these days.

Absolutely! Are people available? I know everyone’s busy, after-schooling, jobs, trying to meet deadlines, etc.

PaulaV said...

Like Tex, "I hate to start the school year with such a cynical attitude."

I posted my fourth graders homework assignment under "teach your babies to write" section.

It is only the third day of school and I am wondering how his teacher plans to teach his charges how to "write effective narratives, poems and explanations".

Did I mention my son's teacher is the only fourth grade teacher without an email address?

Tex said...

Maybe we could rent out Madison Square Garden.

LOL! We’ll have to check availability. When does Ringling Brothers come into town? Only one circus at a time allowed.

Tex said...

After thinking about this, I emailed the teacher. Although I was reluctant to start the year on a negative note, after I read that Catherine was on her 6th (7th?, I lost track) email to the school I though what the heck and went ahead.

Steve gave me the words to use (thanks, Steve) in my email. I explained that I was a little “puzzled” by this homework, and was it a “real” assignment or a “fun” assignment. I asked if she would share her homework philosophy, including whether she likes to give “challenge” homework that may not cover material taught in class.

We’ll see.

Tex said...

The good news is that my daughter came home with glowing praise of her new teacher.

SteveH said...

Teachers may know in their heads how important the homework is, but kids are not mind readers. I have had arguments with my son about how important certain homework is. He would work HOURS on an assignment even though I would tell him that it's too vague and just not that important. Kids want to be good students. Teachers should consider this very carefully when they assign work. It REALLY pisses me off (sorry) when teachers don't look at homework or the kids do self-correction.

This seems to be a big trend in school; self-correction. My son has to have a colored pencil to do this in math. The onus is then on the student to tell the teacher if he/she is having a problem. The only teacher requirement is to be available for help.

A commitment to student success does not put all of the onus on the kids. There are plenty of opportunities for kids to "bust their asses" without extra help from the teachers.

SusanJ said...

I got the same (wrong) answers Vicky did.

If the teacher had clearly said that instead of homework I'll give you a puzzle to share with your family and if the puzzle had been funny or interesting or had any positive qualities, then possibly this might have been a positive way to start off the year.

It was a long time ago since my kids were middle-school age but I remember a few times they brought home puzzles the whole family enjoyed.

I actually like puzzles but this one was just flat-out stupid.

And I agree with all the commenters about not giving homework that can be a lot of work and then ignoring it.

Doug Sundseth said...

This is an IQ test sort of question; it tests your ability to make connections between seemingly random pieces of data. It also has multiple right answers for at least the saints names. It has no place in required homework.

Which raises another point. I despise things that appear to be homework but turn out to be "fun" puzzles given out by the teacher. Do other parents' kids not have things that they do because they want to?

If a teacher wants to suggest activity types that might have pedagogical value; great. I'm happy to shift the focus of activities that I will encourage my son to undertake. If you'd like me to spend some time observing his reading, that seems valuable to me; if you'd like me to talk about geography, that's seems useful, too.

Alternatively, if the teacher wants my son to do 50 addition problem sets over the next month, turning in two sets per day for a grade, that seems that it would have obvious value, too.

This is none of those things.

It might have been fun if the teacher had posted these on the board in the last ten minutes of class and asked the kids to brainstorm answers. (Note: not "useful", "fun".) As it is, it's like your boss telling you to go home and come up with three entirely new products that your company can sell and that will each generate $1 million in net profits over the next year -- it's asking for inspiration on schedule.

Now if the teacher can manage to figure out how to teach that, I'll push for a huge raise for that teacher starting today. Care to place a bet about the probability of that happening?

Catherine Johnson said...

People wonder why it only takes me 3-4 hours to home school my kids while the public schools have your kids for 7 hours and they still have the nerve to hand out silly homework.

ABSOLUTELY!!!!!!!

Catherine Johnson said...

Although I was reluctant to start the year on a negative note, after I read that Catherine was on her 6th (7th?, I lost track) email to the school I though what the heck and went ahead.

That's me.

Outside agitator.

Catherine Johnson said...

I'm serious.

Catherine Johnson said...

I have had arguments with my son about how important certain homework is. He would work HOURS on an assignment even though I would tell him that it's too vague and just not that important. Kids want to be good students.

Absolutely.

Kids want to be good students.

They want to please their teachers.

They want to do good work.

If a teacher gives a pointless assignment she's not even going to look at (and I can guarantee you this teacher isn't going to be collecting or commenting on this assignment), most children are going to want to do it.

(though....is there a gender difference? I now know more than a few girls who will knock themselves out trying to please teachers, staying up til past midnight, worrying themselves sick, etc. The boys I know, including Chris who loves school, will "give up.")

Catherine Johnson said...

Steve gave me the words to use (thanks, Steve) in my email. I explained that I was a little “puzzled” by this homework, and was it a “real” assignment or a “fun” assignment. I asked if she would share her homework philosophy, including whether she likes to give “challenge” homework that may not cover material taught in class.

This is always the challenge, but it can --- and MUST --- be done.

Find your language, maintain your tone, but stand your ground.

I had FOUR pieces of calamitous news on the FIRST day of school (can't post all of them here)....and I've simply had to force myself to SAY NOTHING until I cooled off, gathered more information, and gained some distance.

I've been confused about my "role" in the district this year (I'm sure people are waiting breathlessly to find out what I'll decide my role will be....).

Anyway, self-aggrandizement aside, I've been confused about what I should do this year.

Last year I was the district radical.

This year, for a couple of reasons (also not post-able at the moment) I need a more "nuanced" approach, as the TIMES would say.

For awhile there I was thinking: nuance-----!

How am I going to do nuance??

But the fact is, it's possible. I was rereading some of last year's posts to the "Irvington Parents Forum" this morning, and the tone in all of them is fine.

So I'm starting to see my way.

I'll probably be less "oppositional" in the sense that I will express more sympathy for what our administrators and board members are trying to achieve.

But I will almost certainly be just as frank.

Being able to pull this off will mean choosing my words & structuring my thoughts carefully.

Catherine Johnson said...

Which raises another point. I despise things that appear to be homework but turn out to be "fun" puzzles given out by the teacher. Do other parents' kids not have things that they do because they want to?

what Doug said

Catherine Johnson said...

This is a core problem with constructivist classrooms - enforced fun.

Forced fun isn't fun.

(By definition it's not; I've read the most important research literature on the neuroscience of fun.)

Catherine Johnson said...

Forced fun is infuriating, just as Doug says.

SusanJ said...

I have a comment related to Doug's post. which I agree with in one sense but am concerned about in another.

Apparently there has been some research that shows that kids do better in school if their parents are involved. I remember when my granddaughter was in pre-school they would give "parent" assignments. Her friend's mother, who had two children in different pre-school classes, complained to me that doing this silly homework was becoming a real burden. [One assignment involved bringing home a stuffed animal and returning it with a typewritten story of what it -- i.e. the kid and his/her family -- had done the previous afternoon and evening.] I say NONE of your business.

Anyway, based on what I read on KTM, I'm thinking that these parent involvement suggestions are totally inappropriate for families where the parents are already involved. And I think they may be demeaning and inappropriate for all families. Why does the school have the right to even suggest -- let alone dictate -- how a family spends family time?

KarenA said...

Speaking of pumpkins and math . . .

Q. How do you calculate the area of a Jack O'Lantern?
A. You use pumpkin pi(e)!

Okay, since there are a lot of math brains among the KTM crowd, I will add the disclaimer that the joke is not technically accurate.

However, even that would provide a good hook for discussing pi. (I know that's a stretch, but I wanted to tell my joke anyway.)

PaulaV said...

"I'm thinking that these parent involvement suggestions are totally inappropriate for families where the parents are already involved."

There are many parents who are involved by simply ensuring their children are well-rested, fed, clothed and sent to school on time. These same parents help with school projects and homework, shuttle kids back and to extracurricular activities and still manage to hold down jobs.
Yet, apparently, this isn't enough.

Catherine Johnson said...

Why does the school have the right to even suggest -- let alone dictate -- how a family spends family time?

This is a HUGE unaddressed issue as far as I'm concerned.

huge, huge, huge

Apart from the presumption on the part of schools that they can give "assignments" to parents, which is flat wrong, there is a glaring issue of fairness & level playing fields. (Which I realize we've talked about ad nauseum, but once more around the the merry-go-round will not hurt.)

I'm going to put this in a real post, but for now here's my latest anecdote.

I was talking to a math-brain friend here in town.

Probably some of you recall that Irvington, for reasons lost in time, had 4 math tracks until a couple of years ago.

Phase 1 was the slowest; Phase 4 was the fastest.

Naturally I had always assumed that Phase 1 was SPED.

I said something to this effect in passing, talking to my friend.

She said, "Phase 1 isn't special ed."

I said, "Yes, it is; it's Phase 1."

She said, "No, Phase 1 is just kids who aren't any good at math."

Then she told me that one of the Phase 1 kids at the high school just scored a 94 on Regents Math A (algebra & geometry).

Talk about it's always worse than you think.

We've got an entire CLASS for kids with no discernible learning problems, kids who are, apparently, simply assumed to be "no good at math" or, alternatively, "math isn't their thing."

I said, "You mean these kids have no learning problems and they're in Phase 1 math?? How did that happen???"

I don't think she'd ever thought about it that way. She's a natural, majored in science in college.

She assumes there are people who are no good at math ---- which is manifestly true ---- and that, furthermore, the reason there are smart kids who are no good at math is God or nature, take your pick, made them that way, or they just didn't take to the subject.

(She's a great gal; this isn't a criticism.)

Of course I know people think this way, and yet I'm surprised when I encounter it "in the flesh."

There is absolutely no reason beyond ineffective pedagogy and curriculum for intelligent, focused students to be "bad at math."

Catherine Johnson said...

Getting back to Susan's point, virtually all of the black students in our district are in Phase 1 math. This is true year-in and year-out.

Every once in awhile, when I manage to step back a bit and look at what I've been doing for the past 3 years, I realize: THIS IS BIZARRE.

I've basically been in a 3-year long intensive professional development workshop, attempting to teach myself enough K-12 math to transmit the subject to my perfectly intelligent, adequately motivated, non-emotionally hampered child.

How many parents on the planet could do what I'm doing????

Plenty of people have the ability to do what I'm doing, but almost no one is going to have the awareness that he/she needs to do it, or the desire to do it.

Catherine Johnson said...

I have yet to see another middle-aged woman doing algebra on Metro-North.

Catherine Johnson said...

I have yet to see anyone doing algebra on Metro-North.

Catherine Johnson said...

While the district is annoyed as hell that I've been so public about what I'm doing, our administrators and teachers take it for granted that parents are hiring private teachers to reteach math at home.

Catherine Johnson said...

AND: the district sent a "Trailblazers" survey to K-5 parents, which is good.

However, one of the questions was, "I feel comfortable assisting my son/daughter in his/her math homework."

When I pointed out to the assistant superintendent that this question assumes that parents will be "assisting" with homework, she disagreed.

Catherine Johnson said...

Schools now are assuming extensive "help with homework" and/or tutoring without even being aware that they've made this assumption.

Catherine Johnson said...

They need to spend more time reflecting on their practice.

PaulaV said...

"Plenty of people have the ability to do what I'm doing, but almost no one is going to have the awareness that he/she needs to do it, or the desire to do it."

You hit the nail on the head. It first takes the awareness that it needs to be done.

There is nothing like a principal to say your kid has a disconnect in math to make one aware there is a problem.

concernedCTparent said...

Forced fun isn't fun.

I've said the same about "discovery" learning.

It's not genuinely discovery in an artificial classroom setting that waits and wishes for you to "discover" something you could have learned much more efficiently if it were taught to you.

I'd rather have my student take the new knowledge (learned through good instruction) and discover something on his/her own. That's true discovery.

Catherine Johnson said...

You hit the nail on the head. It first takes the awareness that it needs to be done.

There is nothing like a principal to say your kid has a disconnect in math to make one aware there is a problem.


We need to collect the various stories that have been told around here.

I think yours is one of the most dramatic -- and very important for parents to know.

What was Robyn's story? (I'm a little concerned I'm mixed your experience together with hers....)

I don't think anyone in the wider public has any real sense that we have an entire category of "NBT" kids (never been taught) classified as "LD."

Catherine Johnson said...

It's not genuinely discovery in an artificial classroom setting that waits and wishes for you to "discover" something you could have learned much more efficiently if it were taught to you.

I've thought about the essential falseness of so much of the language used pretty often -- I've wondered whether one of my core reasons for reacting viscerally against constructivism comes out of my job as a writer. The radical difference in the way an Engelmann uses language as opposed to the way a Calkins does automatically puts me in one camp & not the other.

It's the constant pretention I can't bear, and the falseness: the constant use of words to say what they don't mean.

Catherine Johnson said...

It first takes the awareness that it needs to be done.

Even C. said, when he was still pretty young, that it was lucky he flunked a lot of his 4th grade math; otherwise I wouldn't have known I needed to teach him.

As far as I can tell, huge numbers of parents across the country are assuming that their children's performance in school math classes is an accurate reflection of their ability and interest.

concernedCTparent said...

As far as I can tell, huge numbers of parents across the country are assuming that their children's performance in school math classes is an accurate reflection of their ability and interest.

That has certainly been my experience. As long as the math grades are good, the books are flashy and their children happy, many assume that their children are learning what they need to know. The problem is they haven't taken a Singapore or Saxon placement test or the standardized assessment of a state with high standards.

Catherine Johnson said...

As long as the math grades are good, the books are flashy and their children happy, many assume that their children are learning what they need to know.

I have no idea -- none -- whether I would thought to take a look at what C. was actually learning if he hadn't failed early.

The flip side of the coin is even worse, though (I think).

The flip side of the coin is that virtually every parent I know (not to mention every district employee) assumes that if a student isn't doing well in math that's because he's "no good at math" or "math isn't his thing."

I've heard this over and over and over again.

Catherine Johnson said...

I'm sitting there going, "What do you mean some kid who just scored a 94 on Regents is in Phase 1 because MATH ISN'T HER THING."

Any kid capable of scoring a 94 on Regents doesn't get to be in the "math isn't my thing" category.

Math may not be that kid's thing; I don't care one way or the other.

OBVIOUSLY that kid has more ability than the school is recognizing or developing.

Catherine Johnson said...

Just to be clear....I'm still my usual small-l libertarian self. People have a right to dislike math; they have a right to blow it off.

But teens aren't quite people!

hmmm...

back up

Kids don't have the same freedoms we do, and for good reason.

A kid with solid ability needs to be pushed, coaxed, and commanded to learn the basics and learn them well.

The basics include math up through at least algebra 1 & geometry.

That's all I'm saying.

Catherine Johnson said...

If I had let Christopher "choose" what subjects he liked and didn't like, he would have been done with math back in 4th grade, when he was telling me "math is for nerds."

Of course, I've probably made it sound as if he's done with math now...but he really isn't. His achievement is way, way off from where it should be, but he's "still in the game" if that makes any sense at all....

He's got some kind of base, albeit shaky, and we will carry on shoring that up, brick by brick, and working on algebra.