A Writer Writes About Math (Part 2)

As I said in my previous post:

I am a writer.

A word girl.

A lover of language.

And, thanks to many less-than-ideal experiences with math, math is not my thing.

Which explains why I went into panic mode when my son’s 4th Grade teacher told me I’d be helping some kids with their math last week. Thank God for the answer key, I thought,  as I headed to the hall with the first student I’d be helping.

“Do you remember taking a test at the beginning of the year?” I asked him as we sat down, side by side at a table outside Room 18.

“Yeah, on the computer,” he shrugged

“Well, this morning I’m going to work with people on problems that they missed,” I pointed to the stack of assessments. “Just so we can be sure that you understand how to do those math problems now.”

I attempted an encouraging smile, knowing that the last thing I’d want to do is revisit problems I’d missed on a math test. Rather than jumping right in, I decided to ask this boy if he liked math.

“It’s okay,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. Again. (You can’t fool me, I thought…I, too, am a shrugger of shoulders when it comes to math.)

“Can I tell you something?” I asked. He looked up.

“Math’s not my favorite thing either.”

He smiled.

“Once, when I was in Third Grade, a teacher…” and I shared my first math story with him. I explained abo0ut the multiplication tables I didn’t know. Described the mean teacher from down the hall and the line of kids waiting behind me.

“Whoa,” his eyes got wide. He was with me in that doorway and I knew it.

“Yeah, it was the worst,” I told him. “But today’s not like that. You and me? We’re just going to go through these together and figure them out.”

He smiled.

And we started to work on those problems. I glanced at his assessment records — he’d missed at least 10 questions out of 40. So we went through them, one by one. The fractions. The story problems. The division. The estimates of measurement.

We were on a roll. I was feeling great. The problems and answers (after 33 years)  actually made sense to me.

Then one question came up and I couldn’t explain it. What would you do if you’d estimated that number and had to get to the real number? Quickly, this problem was like a foreign language I didn’t understand.

I had to refer to the answer key. And, I felt like a loser.

Loud and clear my inner critic bellowed: “Really, Liz? You’re 42 years old and you’re looking at the answer key for 4th grade math? Who are you kidding? Why are you volunteering to help these kids? If the teacher saw you looking at the answer key, she’d tell you to go home!”

And then I really saw that kid sitting next to me. The one who had missed at least 1/4 of the problems on the test. I looked at him. He watched as I referred to the answer key.

He didn’t care if I had to check the answer. In fact, it might have made him feel better to see that I — an adult (!) — might not know the answer.

That’s when I knew why I was the right person to be helping this boy. With this kid, I could be real about math. I didn’t have to pretend (like I did 33 years ago) that I knew everything. I could show him that I, too, might need help with some of these problems. I might help him see that, even though he thinks so, math doesn’t come easy to everyone else but him.

And in that moment I found my lesson: if my response to math can help even one kid see that it’s okay to be vulnerable, to understand that we all make mistakes, that life does exist after 4th grade math, it’s all worth it.

(If you ask me, that’s going to be a much more valuable lesson than memorizing the product of 9 x 8.)

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4 Responses to A Writer Writes About Math (Part 2)

  1. Mom/Nana/Gayl says:

    Once again volunteering benefits both – the 4th grader and you learning on different levels together! Loved Part 2 of your Math Post. xo Mom

  2. A great lesson and way to model being vulnerable in a powerful way. Thanks for taking me back to the smell of pencils and the sound of the recess bell.

  3. Absolutely! I’m happy that boy got to sit with you and figure out his maths problems 🙂

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