kitchen table math, the sequel: a man after my own heart

Monday, September 20, 2010

a man after my own heart

Glen wrote:
I have my fourth grader do a hundred fraction problems while I do his "cut pictures out of magazines" homework for him. I have him work through middle school math contest problems, tossing him hints when he gets stuck, while I draw on his poster board. I had him learn every country in Europe while I built miniature teepees in a shoebox diorama.

He gets good grades on his schoolwork, but other parents--I mean kids, of course--often cut and paste better than I do.

His teacher thinks he's a "natural" at math, but there's nothing natural about it. It's man-made. It's training--the same sort of training you'd do if you needed to teach someone to cut hair or build birdhouses: show them how, help them a few times, and put them to work.

She would be shocked if she actually knew the level of difficulty of the math and science work he can do, but we're careful not to let her find out. Last year the teacher found out and was nasty to him for the rest of the year. She liked him when she thought he was a natural, but when she found out that he had to work at math, she was outraged.

"It's not fair to me that you are willing to do that much work for your father, but aren't doing the same for me!" I thought that I--I mean my son, of course--was cutting enough pictures out of enough magazines for her, but she apparently thought she deserved more.

She wanted to discuss the "problem" with me. She was concerned about how I was using his time. (How ironic.) She said that their Everyday Mathematics emphasized "conceptual understanding" and was concerned that my approach might not lead to "actual understanding." The previous night he had solved,

"We have four times as many cows as horses on our ranch. If we sold 280 cows, we'd end up with twice as many horses as cows. How many cows do we have?"

He was in third grade. I almost asked her to go to the board and show me how SHE would have taught him to solve it, with "actual understanding," but that would have been cruel. I held my tongue to keep my son out of trouble and said that I tried my best to help him understand. We left it at that.

This is one of the top 5% of elementary schools in Silicon Valley, so almost all the kids are performing at grade level--and that's where they want to keep them.

And I've now found out that at higher levels, middle school and high school, it's almost standard practice for parents to take the mindless homework load off their kids' shoulders to free up time for them to do the portion of homework that is actually useful.

If I have to do even more mindless homework, I may have to outsource it to India.


Catherine Johnson said...

That's a keeper!

Love, love, LOVE the punchline --- didn't see it coming --- !

Anonymous said...


I take it you have no gifted program in your school.

I wish I could say that I'm shocked, but I've had similar conversations with various school personnel over the years, as have many KTMers.

If you're near a university or decent sized city, there might be some math enrichment classes (or acceleration) to be looked into. I'm near Northwestern here in the midwest, and their Center for Talent Development was a lifesaver for many years.

Also, your district might be more open if it finds out that neighboring districts actually deal with bright/gifted kids through some kind of program or pullout, especially if you can tie it to higher scores.


gasstationwithoutpumps said...

There are several good math circles in Silicon Valley (easy to find with Google). I wish we had one on this side of the hill.

John said...

I have always helped my daughter with maths. In primary school (in England), I got her to work through Schoffield and Sims Mental Maths books. She has been at a grammar school - one of the few remaining selective state schools in UK - now for three years and, for the past two years, after reading about Singaporean maths on kitchen table math, I've been taking her through the text books. And she just loves it! She is in the top ten in the top set in her year and, whatever they throw at her, she's already covered and it's a piece of cake.
So, a big thank you to you, Catherine Johnson, for showing us the way.

Catherine Johnson said...

I just remembered -- a while back I had an idea for a home business: hiring yourself out to make school projects for people's kids ---

Catherine Johnson said...

It's kinda horrifying to think that maybe we no longer need term paper writing services.....

Catherine Johnson said...

Golly, John - thanks for the nice compliment!

Glen said...

SusanS, you guessed correctly: we have no gifted program anymore. It was a victim of California budget cuts.

And yes, we have a good university nearby--I'm here at Stanford a couple of days a week--and they have the "EPGY" program for gifted kids. I see them each summer, some as young as middle school, chasing each other around campus, earnestly pontificating on The Bush Tax Cuts in hopes of getting the attention of "that cute blonde", wielding SAT vocabulary like pheromones. My little guys aren't old enough yet, and EPGY costs a fortune, but I'll look into it more in a year or two.

And, gasstation, you're right, there is a math circle program here at Stanford. My kids are still too young for it, but that will change.

Glen said...

Catherine, I owe a great debt to you, Barry Garelick, and the other misfit toys and malcontents here on KTM and elsewhere who opened my eyes to what's going on it my kids' schools.

I had assumed I would be helping my kids with homework and supplementing their school's teaching with a bit of my own. I didn't think it was urgent, so I didn't get around to serious research until my oldest had finished second grade.

I assumed that one should teach school subjects the way top coaches trained people in skills such as tennis or chess, where you could easily tell how good the learner was and being extremely good was the objective.

I was astonished to discover that my brief, amateurish, supplementary lessons based on my naive "do what successful trainers do in competitive fields" educational philosophy almost immediately became the primary source of learning for my kids. Within a week or two, the whole day spent at school had become a supplement to the half-hour or so spent with me, and I didn't understand why.

I then discovered KTM, Barry Garelick, and others, and realized that it was all about efficiency. The school was so inefficient in so many ways that I found that just doing things DIRECTLY accelerated my kids tremendously.

Catherine and other regulars, I can't thank you enough for the ideas you've made available here and elsewhere. I don't think you'll change the country, but you sure helped me. Hearing the details from you helped me see several obvious ways that I could improve things, and it has made a big difference for my kids. Now, they're slaving away at home, they're bored in school, and their teachers won't call on them anymore.... ;-)

Sparklee said...

This post made my day!

When I talked to my son's teacher about how bored he was in math class, she suggested that I buy some math workbooks and send them to school so he could work on them after he finished gluing paper squares to demonstrate how 6 + 4 = 10.

We homeschool now. :)