Thursday, September 20, 2007

Numbers Game

It is the 21st day of the school year (not counting the half day at the beginning) and here in the Harriet household we are encountering our first signs of resistance. AJ doesn’t want to do his math homework.

The whole idea of homework has taken some getting used to, along with a school day that is four hours longer than last year and eating lunch away from home. AJ averages about 30 minutes of homework a day. 20 minutes of this is his reading assignment, which is a book that he and his teacher and I pick together, currently Chasing Vermeer. This is challenging and he likes the story, so this part of the homework is only a problem when his friends are standing on the front porch wanting to play kickball. The other ten minutes is supposed to be spent reviewing spelling words and doing math homework. The spelling words are so ridiculously easy for him, that we play games with them instead. We write crossword puzzles, put them in alphabetical order, write sentences using as many of them as possible, etc. I suppose we could skip them altogether, but I’m also trying to teach him that he needs to follow his teacher’s instructions and that he needs to figure out how to make his work interesting, because he’s going to have to do stuff that he thinks is boring some of the time. That’s just life. So we do our spelling like everyone else, but a little differently.

The real problem has been math. Our school uses the contraversial Everyday Mathematics series, a revamping of the traditional methods of teaching math to elementary school students that came out of research done at the University of Chicago. The idea is to teach kids how math relates to the world around them in much the same way that English is taught by relating writing to things the child knows and can write about. The curriculum seeks to eliminate rote memorization in favor of explaining the concepts about why things might be useful. Those who think Everyday Math is misguided usually focus on the lack of memorization and ability to handle basic arithmetic problems. But from my first views of the materials, that would appear to be a problem with the teaching and not with the materials itself. As a kid who refused to do my work unless I knew why I had to do it, I think I could have benefited from this approach, and I think it will ultimately be good for AJ too.

However, the early material is extremely basic. The math work in school for the last three weeks has pretty much consisted of counting things. AJ could count to 100 when he was 2. This is kind of a drag. But not as much of a drag as the homework, which has almost entirely consisted of finding numbers somewhere in our house. Yesterday he had to write his phone number, his grandmother’s phone number, and think of three other things in the house that have numbers on it. Last week he had to count the number of calendars in our house. Another day he had to count the number of thermometers. This is getting really old.

AJ has always loved numbers. He anthropomorphized them when he was little. “Let’s play the game where the numbers talk to each other,” he’d demand over and over again. And we’d take his foam rubber numbers and pretend they were going to school or to the playground or to a birthday party. He made puzzles out of them, trying to fit as many numbers into as small a space as possible. Counting was one of his favorite games from his earliest years. But by age 6, he’s looking for something more. “When are we going to get to do math problems?”

I wish I knew. We do them at home, but he wants to do them at school with his teacher and friends.

I feel like it’s still early to be worrying about this, so I’ve decided to wait it out for another couple of weeks to see what happens. I want to communicate to AJ that it’s important for him to do his homework even if he thinks it’s stupid, but that it’s also okay to ask for something more challenging if he finishes what he’s supposed to do. I was reassured in my approach by my job as a classroom volunteer this morning. I spent an hour collating math homework from the last half of the school year, homework that looks a lot more interesting than what they’re doing now. There’s still none of the multiplication or division that he craves, nor even subtraction that uses borrowing. But there are pages of problems that ask for multiple solutions, demanding that the students thing broadly and creatively, not just solve by rote. There are fractions worked both numerically and geometrically. There are complicated charts.

“Everyone is starting from a different place,” I tell AJ. “School is for everybody, so sometimes things will be easier and sometimes they will be harder.” I hope that this is true. Are we doing the right thing? Is it better for AJ to learn in a group of unlike abilities than to have lessons tailor-made for him? I think so. But I’m not sure. I wish I had more support. I wish I knew even one other parent in our district who’s going through the same thing. But from what I can tell, there aren’t any other kids like AJ, at least not in his grade. We are our own discrete subset.


FreshHell said...

Yes, the whole IDEA of homework and of DOING it is...tedious. I try to make Dusty expand on hers as much as possible. it's not enough to find words and rhyme them. How about sentences? How about a story? I like the crossword puzzle idea. I'm noticing that her homework, while the same as everyone else's, is on a different plane. While the other kids do "sorts" on PH, BL, ST (digraphs?), Dusty's doing short a, long a words. The G&T teachers mentioned a method of learning algebraic equations with physical shapes - x is a blue square, y is a yellow something-or-other - and that this tactile way of learning has been something the kids have taken into middle school. Sounds like something I could have used. Have you heard of this? If not, I'll ask them what it's called. It has a name that I can't recall.

Harriet said...

I think the whole idea of having 6-year-olds sit still, more or less, for 6 hours a day (plus a half an hour of recess/gym) doesn't make a lot of sense. To get AJ to sit still long enough to do his homework is sometimes phenomenally difficult, and he's a kid who basically likes to do the work. But he needs to run around for a while after school. AJ's going to be getting some different stuff to do for spelling too, but hasn't got it yet. I don't know about that algebraic system, but I'd like to. One of the workbooks we had used shapes like that as blank spaces to fill in situation like 12+x=42. Baby algebra. AJ loves that stuff. The x vs. the times sign confuses him sometimes, so the shapes might be a good idea at this stage.

FreshHell said...

I wonder if there aren't some techniques for learning things actively like creating a baseball diamond (with flour and buckets?) in the yard and calling out spelling words. When he gets it right, he gets to run to the next base, etc. He can see how many homeruns he can score. Dusty is good at sitting but they both get a little out-of-control in the evening. Red usually ends up in tears she's so manic and exhausted and Dusty just doesn't want to do anything but play - either on the computer or Barbies. The nice thing about the after-school program is that 3x a week, she does her homework there. I just check it and we don't have to waste time at home doing it. The G&T teachers aren't big on homework either and make a point of never giving it. So there isn't EXTRA work to do.

FreshHell said...

Here's what they're using: - Hands On Equations.

Chris Tarr said...

My kids did hands-on equations! I think they thought they were sort of fun. I may be completely wrong, but I think the idea of AJ and Dusty having to do homework that's silly (counting calendars) is kind of a waste of time. Poor M was complaining the other night about having to algebra problems that are not very hard, but then having to do 25 of them. It's just tedious. The school day is long enough.