I was watching one of my favorite morning shows, Good Morning America, and the anchors were jokingly laughing off their inability to quickly calculate something that would have added to the light-hearted conversation with an off-handed quip we often hear, “I thought there would be no math.” In other words, ‘it’s okay that I can’t do math, because I can read and I am good at other things.’ One of my other favorite morning shows, Golic and Wingo, even has a button they push that sounds when the personalities become befuddled by the numbers. Theirs is similar, “I was told there’d be no math.” I always take exception to these sentiments because, obviously, we are sending the wrong message.
An even further wrong message was heard at a recent college tour we took with our son, a high school junior. As the admissions counselor was describing the requirements of their liberal arts program, hoping to hook the kids, she opened with, “Has anyone ever been victimized by math?” Victimized?? Seems a bit harsh. I always joke as a teacher when students tell me they are not fond of math (that’s a nice way to put it). I joke with them by asking in what ways numbers have actually hurt them. That gets a laugh, but maybe you need to hear my tone and see my corny face when I say it :). But, this counselor was actually trying to insinuate how painful math class and math with numbers can be, to the point that this college was going to replace all of the kids’ harmful K-12 experiences with a better, more fun class that will be more useful to them. I can’t argue with making math class more real and more meaningful. Whether something is fun, that’s for another conversation, I believe. What bothered me most was that our son, and seventh-grade daughter with us, already both not math-lovers, are once again hearing how awful math is, and in this context, from an educator.
Math educators have uphill battles, maybe more so than other subject areas, but what are parents to do? Society is not subtle about a preference for reading, for history, for science, for art, for sports, for almost anything besides math. Some kids start out with a natural propensity for counting and numbers, and continue a lifetime love of math, paralleled with success in math classes. The parents of these kids probably have an easier road through school, as many subjects and leveling, etc. are tied to math success or failure.
On the flip side, other students struggle with math concepts their entire lives. While still others are up and down depending on many factors, including the type of math involved. The parents of these two types of students may find themselves needing to support their children during their years in school, and at home, and most do not know exactly what to do. I have seen that many battles with math in kids, and probably adults, comes down to confidence, more so than any other subject. Due to many of our schools’ tendencies to tie their overall class structure and opportunity to math ability and/or successes, it is an unfortunate product that math confidence is tied to overall academic self-confidence. I believe I have counseled more children than I would have liked in what seems basic: one’s self concept should not be tied to math ability (perceived or actual). At the heart of the college described above, I do believe they are trying to find the math mind in every kid and try to build up those students who have lost their confidence, however, the message came across like all of the others we hear in society- you either know math or you don’t. If you don’t, it’s okay. If you do… well, you must be the smarter one because us here certainly can’t figure it out.
In our house, one of our the things we like to say is, “Math puts food on the table.” Both my husband and I teach middle school math, for many years. Both of our children are far stronger in writing and history (our son) and writing and science (our daughter). In fact, they will do anything possible to avoid math, and many nights have been a complete struggle to finish math homework. Some years, passing math class has been very close, and too many dinner conversations, car rides, and money have been spent making sure math is understood enough to pass the tests the school feels are important to pass. Don’t get me wrong, I support the school, and their assessments. I just wish, somewhere along the line, someone, or something had sparked a love of math, or at least something that would have provided a like for the subject and the potential that it can have. Math can be more than just learning concepts and completing assignments.
Will math put food on my grown kids’ tables? Probably in some form or another, but not in the way we have provided for them in our house. I mean, seriously, without math we literally would not have food as we have made our living teaching math to hundreds, if not thousands, of students. The most important students are the two that eat dinner with us every night. We do not hold class each night. We have already taught during the day. We have sparked, we have provided opportunities that will create critical thinking and joy, and we have followed our curriculum, and our own children have already gone through their day, exhausted also by 8-12 hours of learning and activities and practice and work and chores. Should we do more? Should we tutor in a way that will provide what we want out of math that ensures math directly puts food on the table? I am sure we will be greeted promptly with eye rolls like every parent gets. The best we can offer is to be there to support our children when they need help with all homework subjects. To make sure that every subject gets equal billing. To make sure that all subjects gets positive words, but especially math. That we “Yay MATH” whenever possible. We are role models by living the life of math, selectively nagging, so as not to push two teens away. We lit the fire of math and let it simmer, until one day it will come out as it is intended in our children, as this world, and our daily lives in it, cannot function with numbers, and at least a basic understanding of them.