Jul 172011

It was the best of conversations, it was the worst of conversations, but in the end, it was an educational conversation for my cousins and I.

Okay, enough with the Dickens reference. During the summer I take a little motorcycle trip. Okay, not so little. I do around 2500 miles from Nevada to Montana and back to see family and some beautiful country. During the trip this summer, I attended a family reunion north of Missoula, MT, and a family picnic in Helena, MT. During each family event, I met with a very bright and talented young girl who was going into the 5th grade. I will call the first one C1 (for Cousin 1, they are actually my cousin’s daughter, but cousin is close enough) and the second one C2. These two bright young girls have some amazing similarities.

Both C1 and C2 come from very supportive families with several siblings. They both have college graduates either as parents and / or grandparents. Both C1 and C2 are entering the 5th grade next school year, and they both are encouraged to do well and school and are given any resource or opportunity they need to succeed in school.

And then the similarities end. There are some irrelevant differences. They each live in a different state (Utah and Montana), but the school districts are similar sized (I looked them up.) Because of this, and because I don’t know any different, I will assume that both C1 and C2 are given similar opportunities in the school for success. [Okay, this might be a deal killer of an assumption, but I have to make it in order to not be angry at what is to come.]

There are also some amazingly important differences. I asked C1 what she likes best about school. Her answer was “Lunch” and then “Recess” and then “Friends”. Even after all that, I couldn’t get her to name an academic subject. When I asked her about math, her reply made my die a little inside. She said, “Math is icky. Math is where you do this.”  The ‘this’ was put her head on her left hand, a thoroughly bored expression on her face, she looked up at the imaginary board, and then with her right hand she mimicked taking notes and writing numbers.

I died. Seriously. I wanted to cry right in front of her. C1 thinks that math is the time when you are bored stiff, quietly taking notes on something on the board. Later, just to make sure I was not imagining that she was as bright as I thought, we walked down to the railroad tracks about a 1/2 mile away. I challenged her to give me an estimate on how many steps it would take. She said 200 the first time. We started walking, and she counted to 100 before she looked up and said she was too far off. I asked her to revise her estimate. She squared the number to 4000 (in her head, as a 4th grader!). Then she said that 4000 was too big, and she cut the number in half to 2000. Then she said that she guessed, based on the 100 steps she counted already, that the number of steps it would take would be between 1500 and 2000.

Yea, she is bored in math class. Go figure.

Then I visit with C2 in another city. C2 and I have met once a year for the last 2 years. Last year, we talked about mathematical patterns in oven hot pads she was making, then had a discussion of 9’s, adding, multiplying, and dividing, and the neat patterns that are present when doing math with 9’s. That was when she was just finished with the 3rd grade, and entering the 4th grade.

This year, that was old hat. She wanted to know some addition “fun math tricks”. (her words) I asked her if she remembered the things we discussed last year, figuring that she would have forgotten some things and I could re-cover them. No. She had expanded on them. She went on to explain to me the difference between prime numbers and composite numbers, and factoring and dividing.

Long story short, we ended up doing modular arithmetic, in mod 5, 7, and 9. She, on her own, continued to do tables for the multiplicative inverses in mod 11 and 12. Why 11 and 12? 11 is prime, so they all work, while 12 is composite, so there are numbers that don’t have inverses. AS A 5TH GRADER!

I found out that C2 will be taken to the middle school and doing 7th grade math while in 5th grade. C1 will be doing 5th grade math in 5th grade, but could be doing so much more. The best of conversations, the worst of conversations, all rolled up in one week.

What did I learn? I learned that some learners are being driven away from math. Whipped, beaten, and driven away, even though they are smart and very capable. I learned that WE are teaching some learners that math is a subject to be feared and avoided, not because they can’t do it, but because WE have not given them a REASON to do it.

Why are we doing this?

  4 Responses to “A tale of two cousins”

  1. I know 50% doesn’t seem like good odds, but I would venture to guess that when I was their age, the balance of interest in math (*especially* by girls) was staggeringly lower. I can only offer you my experiences. Yes, I was more engaged in math with more interesting teachers, but I can say the exact same thing for other classes too, such as history.

  2. Beth, I know my sample size was very small, it just struck me at how both girls are very smart and talented, but one is clearly being under served and turned off. I just wish I had answer to my final question.

  3. Hi Glenn,
    Let me try.
    (a) Math teachers in middle school are teachers first and math people second. Many “just do the standards” partly because it is what is required of them but also partly because their math experience (high school, college) was not rich enough, challenging enough or “mathy” enough. You need to bring both a love of teh subject and a DEEP KNOWLEDGE of it to excite the kids, esp in the higher grades.

  4. Dean, I unfortunately agree with you. It does take a very deep knowledge of the material to have that kind of love for it. I have some good friends who are middle school math teachers, but they are also high school certified. I think that makes a big difference. The overlap between k-8 certification and 7-12 certification creates some difficult math discussions.

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