Advanced Math

Dear Ms. Foster,

I am ashamed and humbled.

See, my husband is traveling.

He's at the largest conference that his new field of radiosomethingblahblah, MRI imaging has. It's in Chicago. He's there with some of the foremost minds of the world --people who developed the MRI technology and who wear suits to the office every day and make decisions that affect the lives of many employees and other people.

So, last night, when I called him because I could not help Ana with her math homework, I did not do so without really, really weighing the expense of marital capital against the expense of Ana getting frustrated and even more confused under MY tutelage. Because, honestly, all she wanted was to get her homework done so that she could play on, which I know is probably some anti-education, satanic device that teachers loathe, but apparently, there is nothing more fun than having virtual pets for whom you must earn cash to furnish houses. (This despite the fact that we live in a house with four REAL pets and I can't even get any help letting them out. But I digress.)

Anyway, I called him. Because I am ALL ABOUT education and especially, math.

It sounded like he was at some sort of networking function but he walked outside and took down the notes:

**A basketball and two footballs cost $28. One football and two basketballs cost $32.

**Six disks cost $18

**One basketball, two pairs of soccer cleats, and one hockey stick cost $71. Two hockey sticks, one basketball, and one pair of soccer cleats cost $64.

**One baseball bat costs $7 more than one baseball. A combination of six baseballs and four bats costs $48.

What is the total cost of one pair of soccer cleats and one of every other item?

He was walking me through the algebra when I had another emergency (my head appeared to be exploding) and so decided to call me back.

Fifteen minutes later he called back for clarification on item three.

He had the entire brain trust of his new company working on our daughter's fifth grade math homework. [ Editor's Note: She's in fourth grade but takes advanced math.]

Yes, these esteemed and seasoned professionals had all walked outside of their important business thing to try to figure out what a basketball cost in this theoretical problem.

Thirty minutes later he called back. They had solved it. Over the speaker phone, he walked Ana through the algebra involved. "Ana," he said, "This is complicated but basically, what they are trying to teach you is a concept called substitution."

I nodded and tried to look wise and supportive.

He walked her through the steps to arrive at the answers to the first clue. We wrote down something that looked like this:

1b + 2f = $28
2b + 1f = $32
2(28 - 2f)1f = 32
56 - 4f + 1f = 32
-3f = 24
f = 8

Which, frankly, might as well have been Swahili to me.

But I tried to look wise and nodded my head several times so I wouldn't be completely busted by my child.

Then he said, "So, Barb, using that process, can you help Ana arrive at the other answers?"

I said, "Ye--s." by which I meant: "There is No. Way. In. Hell."

And then he gave me the answers which I dutifully noted on a piece of paper.

He said, "I love you. I'm sorry I am not there to help." and hung up.

I turned to Ana. "Did you understand what Daddy just said?" I asked, with desperate hope.

She said, ""

And there I was, see. Completely and totally exposed for the math illiterate I am.

I said, "Gosh, Ana, I am so sorry but I didn't understand either. I don't know. I must be very, very tired or maybe I was absent in HIGH SCHOOL when we covered this, because I got a little lost."

So, I gave her the answers and the equations I'd written down and now I will be resigning as my daughter's math homework helper. (And maybe her mother if you're going to ridicule me to the other moms.) However, I am ALL OVER the Spelling.

Barbara Cooper
Math Illiterate

PS: Um, also? That whole arrange the toothpicks into four equal squares from five equal squares without moving more than two toothpicks and not creating any triangles? I didn't even ASK Coop about that. Sorry.


Okay, I'm going to get on my little anti institutional schooling soapbox:

Why are they teaching a 5th-grader (a very cute 5th-grader) algebra? Does she need algebra right now? Does she have all the stuff that comes before algebra (percentages, decimals, fractions, long division) down pat? What is the rush? Is she starting high school next year? Tell that teacher you are fed up with the way the school system is pushing your daughter too hard - so fed up, in fact, that you are going to move all the way to NY, where hopefully they know that 5th grade is for fractions and decimals and maybe percentages (and for having fun).

Tell her I said so.

And I love algebra. Intensely. With a passion.
Annabanana said…
I feel for you, and I can relate - last week we had "Teach Your Parent" time at DS preK/K classroom (he's in K this year). He had chosen to show me multiplication, his problem was 237 x 4. And he did it - but is this really important for kindergarden?
Ei said…
Wow, this post leaves me feeling disfunctional as a parent. I mean, um, I could do the math problem if I had more coffee, and some other things, like wanting to do it. But my kids are nowhere near doing algebra or MULTIPLICATION OF THREE DIGIT NUMBERS IN KINDERGARTEN. And hey, I'm told that my kindergartner is extremely smart. And the older one, he skipped a grade already. Wow. Just wow. Must be because I'm a working mom. Yeah, that must be it.

And the toothpick thing. Grr. Argh. Those things make me crazy.
MadMad said…
Oh, no! Never let them see you sweat! ;) This is what I do: stand there shaking my head in a very disappointed manner, and say, "I'm sorry honey, you should have paid better attention in school." Like it's all her fault, heh heh.

Of course, my kid is probably going to end up in therapy, so what do I know? But at least she'll think I know how to do math!
Barb Matijevich said…
I talked to the teacher this morning and she said that there was more than one way to approach the problem and that we had chosen algebra, which the kids are gradually being exposed to (not going to fix that sentence) but that it wasn't the only way.

I DO think that kids are pushed to know too much, too soon these days --before they are neccesarily developmentally ready for it. But I don't think it's just institutionalized schooling that does that--I think it's all of society. Plus, I have to say, I am EXTREMELY happy with our school, which is why I'm keeping my kids in their current school as long as I can and still make sure that they will make new friends before the summer in New York.

In this case, though, my KID was way ready to learn it and *I* was the missing link. It's been a while since I've had a math class.
Suna Kendall said…
Yeah, my math-delayed kids did algebra like that in 8th or 9th grade. I finally "got" algebra much later. Still can't do much with the homework helping. Empathy here.

I do think they are going overboard with pushing kids--we DO need math literate Americans, but some stuff takes brain development time. And I got the "spelling" gene, not the "computation" gene, myself.
Anonymous said…
Holy cow - that is algebra not 5th or even 6th grade math! I hate they way they teach math now anyway, I had my nephew for most of 2 summers and I swear it makes so little sense. Someone went out of the way to make sure that an adult that is not a math teacher could NOT help. They even changed carrying to make it harder! Sorry I just flat out don't understand multiplication in kindergarten - such a rush and no time to play. No wonder such a large percent are now tagged ADD and the like.
In one of the local schools here the kids have to be still and quiet after they finish eating lunch - we ran around outside in the playground after we ate so we could be still and quiet in class.
Plus no PE in many schools - and they have the nerve to say the kids are not active and overweight (not that I liked PE all the time but it was good for us).
I like MadMad's approach the best. And did you ask the teacher how you are supposed to solve it without algebra? And why you would want to solve it without algebra? And it doesn't matter whether you yourself know how to do it - she should have made sure the kids understood it and wouldn't need their mother to help them with the homework. (About to go off on a pet peeve here about parents being too involved with their children's schoolwork. Must. Stop. Myself. It's not you, Barb - it's everyone, and the schools expect it! What's with that?)

Never mind - give me that teacher's number. I'll deal with her myself.
Barb Matijevich said…
I'm sorry if I sounded all pissy in that earlier comment --I was rushing to PT. I just wanted you to know that I didn't think the TEACHER was at fault. And she said to me that whenever the kids are stuck, even after she's explained it in class, that just tells her she needs to explain more. (It tells me that Ana zoned out because that kid is the single smartest person I've ever met and this teacher is WONDERFUL. A much better teacher than I would be, which is why I don't homeschool --well, that and the fact that Ana doesn't respond particularly well to me and Coop HAS a job.)

I'm hoping that Ana will come home and explain it to me. I truly AM math phobic, the victim of an "experimental" math program when I was in third grade in Alabama.

I am sorry if I sounded defensive --I once had someone unsubscribe from my column because she was a homeschooler and she couldn't read stories about being separated from kids for school. WTF? Anyway.

You guys would like the teacher--I promise. I'm the original Mama Bear about my Ana and I really love her. In fact, I took her a print-out of this blog post and she laughed like crazy.
Barb Matijevich said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said…
Last night, helping Jessie with her math, I swear to G*d, this is what I said.

"How about if I just write you a note telling the teacher that we had something to do and you couldn't finish".

I SWEAR that's what I said. Wanna know what she said?

"No mommy, I should really do it. It's o.k. - I'll figure it out on my own"

Do I suck at parenting or what?
hokgardner said…
You have described my greatest fear. Math and I do not get along. I ended up auditing my AP Calc class my senior year of high school because I didn't want to have to take the AP exam and skew the school's average by failing it.

As I tell people on a regular basis, there's a reason I majored in literature in college. Fortunately B is good at math, so he can help the girls.

But it is impressive that so many of Coop's colleagues were so gung ho about helping with the math problems.
DK said…
Um...this is what I get:

A football costs $8. A basketball costs $12. A pair of soccer cleats costs $22. A hockey stick costs $37. A disk is $6. A baseball is $2. A baseball bat is $9. Therefor, the cost of a pair of cleats plus one of each other item (ps, isn't that the same as saying, one of everything?) is $96.

Is that right?

I don't know how to do that without algebra, though. Although, I started doing basic algebra and geometry in my fifth grade advanced math class.

Was that waaaaaaaaay too geeky of me?
Candy said…
I dunno what to say.

Your husband rocks.

Marion Gropen said…
It sounds like your daughter is getting out of arithmetic and into **math**.

It might help you to think of math as a language. It actually is one with a very small vocabulary, and very simple grammar. When you're solving a math problem, you're doing a translation, and then you're WRITING various things you know about the situation. Like all essays, the first draft may head in some wrong directions, but as long as you keep writing sentences that are true and make sense, sooner or later, you'll reach a conclusion.

Try making the shift from "math" to "language and writing." I bet it helps.
Barb Matijevich said…
DK, You're almost right. But a hockey stick is $15, the disks are $3 each and the total is $71. I can give you Coop's number if you want to check your equations.

Marion, I LOVE how you just wrote about this. i never thought of math that way. I bet if I change my perspective, I might learn to actually, um, speak it...

DK said…
D'oh! It must be the post-call sleep deprived brain. Otherwise, I cannot justify how I literaly looked at "6 disks cost $18" and divided 18 by three. You know, to get 6. Jeeeez...that was the easy equation!

Maybe I need to just go to bed. 6pm is late enough for bed, right?
Annabanana said…
well, since I've seen a few comments about the multiplication in kindergarden, I should explain, too. DS is in Montessori, and they don't really 'teach' any specific level of math (or anything), the kids work through the materials at their own pace and learn as much as they want (with some guidance). My son simply ADORES school, and amazes me. Biggest punishment in my house is 'you will have to stay home with me and not go to school'. So nope, not all the kindergardners are doing multiplication, just a few, but I like that they can learn it if they want to. I wish I could have learned math the way Montessori teaches. Ok, enough hogging Barb's blog - sounds to me like Ana has an awesome teacher, too. As well as amazing parents.
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Lynn said…
Giving a big thumbs-up to both Suburbancorrespondent and Ms. Marion. Algebra is a lovely, luscious language [how's that for alliteration?] that expresses things that cannot be easily or elegantly expressed [equal time for assonance] in other ways.

The children's father was a math-phobe until somebody told him to think of algebra as "just another language", and then he was a wizard at math.

All five of the girls are crazy-high-verbal. Four of them hate math. The one who loves math, can't spell.

If we all had identical gifts and talents, we would not need one another, or appreciate one another.

Thou shalt not beat thyself up.
Anonymous said…
I snagged my husband on his way out the door to drive out of town for an early morning job. I pretended that I wanted details of Boy Child's Cub Scout Den presenting the colors at their Pack meeting tonight, which I couldn't attend.

But really, out of the corner of my eye, I was stretching out my questions timed to 7th Grade Girl Child's unpacking of her backpack. Which included, I had been clued in on the drive home, PreAP Algebra Homework.

"Awww, Boy Child's already in bed? I should go tell him goodnight before he goes to sleep." ((Scurries up stairs.))) (((Comes downstairs))) Dogs? Who wants to go outsiiiiiide??? (7 minute potty trip to the front yard.) (Potty trip myself, but not outside).

Re-enter family living space just as they're wrapping it up.

He's still out of town tomorrow. Math Deficient Mommy is hoping Daddy's lodging includes high-speed wireless so we can video iChat any such nonsense tomorrow.

I feel your pain. In buckets.
Mrs.Q said…
Suddenly I understand my mother SOOOO much better! And I so get the not-math thing: my students are constantly amused that I can't manage to put 12 of them into small groups. I tell 'em that's why I teach English. Not math.
Anonymous said…
hi, Sorry Barbara, but you wrote one of the equations incorrectly. Here's it corrected. Sorry I'm a little anal. Love your blog by the way. Den
1b + 2f = $28
2b + 1f = $32
2(28 - 2f +) 1f=32
56 - 4f + 1f =32
-3f = 24
f = 8
Barb Matijevich said…
Well, I never would have known that it was wrong, so I thank you for pointing it out. I went back and fixed it--I'm sort of anal THAT way, I guess.

Okay, so are you ready? I decided that I had to master this math thing and I bought a book yesterday called "Math Without Fear."

We'll see. I wish I felt more hopeful.
Anonymous said…

Last year my then 8 year old daughter (also massively accelerated in math) told me in the sweetest of voices, "No offense, Mom, but you really can't help me with math anymore. Your brain just doesn't work like mine."

No offense indeed!