I teach English, speech, debate, theatre, ESL – not math. I’m not even very good at the subject. What I hope to offer is perspective as both a struggling math student and as a parent who lacks confidence in her math skills. Despite this, I’ve used a variety of means to help my children be successful in math. And as you can guess, it began when they were just old enough to begin talking.
My daughter Kitty and I are avid Tex-Mex fans. We love toasty tortilla chips and fresh salsa. At just 3 years old, we were adding and subtracting tortilla chips while waiting on our meals at restaurants. I’d break one in half and we would identify what a “half” was. We talked about the most common fractions like quarters and thirds. We also did simple addition and subtraction. Subtraction was her favorite – it meant she got to eat the chip!
As she got older, we baked and cooked together. I would ask her how much two halves were or other such problems I devised. She also had a really clever Sponge Bob game that required mixing smoothies to exacting fractions.
My partner and I do some of the above with our 7 year old, Jo, but we make it a bit more challenging of course. Although in first grade, I am convinced that memorizing the multiplication tables is something she can not only do well, but can greatly benefit from. When Kitty was in third grade, I discovered that the teachers no longer expect students to memorize the multiplication chart. Horrified, I taught her myself. When you make it a game or even a prerequisite for something they want, they will learn it quickly.
So my partner made Jo a grid that allows her to find the answer to any number 1-12 times any number 1-12. She loves it. She enjoys quizzing us on it as well as being quizzed on it. We discussed how zeroes affect not only addition but multiplication. And of course we did all of this verbally, without paper. And to our glee, she quickly began pointing out all the patterns the grid reveals. She may be the only first grader at her school who knows what 100 x 5 is because she figured out the pattern. The result is a child who is head of her class in math and a child who believes math is fun.
Another activity we have done to make math fun is to use it to teach other subjects. We learned numbers in Spanish on our long drive to take her back to her other house each weekend. We then started doing math in Spanish. I gave Jo the sentence for asking an addition question and we then started plugging in numbers. “Lo que es dos mas dos?” She would laugh, do some figuring in her head, and respond “Dos y dos son cuatro!” She anticipates doing her multiplication in Spanish soon. (I’ll have her counting backward in Spanish in no time.)
Middle School Students (really, any age)
Whatever your interests are – whether hunting or gardening, cooking or playing sports – find the math in them. Give your child a tape measure and have them accurately measure out distances. Allow them to convert the fractions you need for making a larger or smaller amount of pancakes for breakfast. Have them figure up how much sales tax you’ll be charged, what tip to leave a waiter, or how many nickels dimes they’ll need to get a coke from the machine. Let them sew from a pattern or calculate your miles per gallon. Ask them for help budgeting for a trip they want to take or saving for a much-coveted back-to-school item.
Math truly is everywhere. Take every opportunity to demonstrate how useful and how important it is. They’ll be less afraid of it when they are older and more prone to ask questions as they seek their own mathematical solutions to life’s dilemmas.
Another important point is teaching them to read dense informational material. As an English teacher, you may think I have a hidden agenda. I don’t, my agenda is quite open. If your child knows how to read dense informational material, they can do anything, even learn math on their own. (Furthermore, think how easy fiction will be for them!) If you have something to assemble, let them help you with the instructions. Feign confusion and let them explain it to you while guiding them with Socratic questioning. When they seem stumped, offer them a “What if we…” sentence. Realizing early on that adulthood means having to read this sort of material from time to time is key part of them getting on board early. Then, when they complain that they don’t understand how a certain teacher teaches, you can easily point them toward the book. Math texts show step-by-step how to solve problems and give numerous examples. When Kitty was a fifth grader, this strategy saved us. And it’s a lesson she’s never forgotten. We can always go to the book for clarity.
High School Students
The final strategy I’ll give is for higher level math that requires more background knowledge — and quite honestly scares the bejesus out of me. While studying to take my CSCS exam (still in the process), I encountered a great deal of information that may as well have been rocket science, for all I knew. Were it not for YouTube, I’d never be as far in the text book as I am. Find a series of videos from a teacher who makes the most sense to you and your child. Absolutely learn it with them, but not for them. If they see you trying to figure it out as their partner and help, they are more likely to want to help you and ask questions too. Ask them what they think about such-and-such and if a particular strategy might work. Ask them to rate an instructional video and evaluate which sources are the easiest from which to learn. Have them research the videos themselves. Maybe they will find additional websites and be proud of their technological prowess. Suggest they create their own videos to explain what they’ve learned if no good videos exist. Show them tenaciousness, dedication, and perseverance. The point is when they are encouraged to evaluate, synthesize, and analyze a subject, they will learn to LOVE the subject.
Which of these strategies have you employed in your quest for mathematical greatness at home? Which work best for you and yours? What would you add in way of suggestions for parents of struggling math students?