One math problem at a time
When they say that the days are long and the years are short, they weren’t only talking about babies. This season also includes teenagers.
When our school buildings closed in mid-March, students and teachers had to pivot quickly. I was unsure of what this would entail and how it would affect my kids. My children took to the task well. It helped that they had fantastic teachers who made the whole process appear seamless. But I knew that behind the scenes, the teachers were just as concerned that they would be able to reach and connect with their students. I watched and supported as lessons were conducted at my kitchen and dining room tables and in our family room.
My oldest was finishing middle school. He missed the year end celebrations and promotions. But he was mostly looking forward to high school with excitement and trepidation. He was accepted into a local magnet program of his choice and that added to the excitement. He was less enthusiastic to find out that because he also tested well in the math program, he was automatically placed in a magnet pre-calc course for the fall. He’s strong in math, but his passion is writing. He’s really good at both.
My son is on the spectrum. He sees things very black and white. He creates an order in his head on how things should go and becomes agitated when things don’t go the way he thinks they should. He doesn’t like new situations and anything unknown. We’ve worked together for years on flexibility and changes in schedule. School schedules don’t throw him off as they used to, but a change in schedule outside of school is very frustrating. We’re still rolling with the punches.
When my son found out that Magnet Pre-Calc instead of Honors Algebra 2 was going to be a part of his freshman schedule there was a lot of anxiety. A lot of trepidation. And a lot of arguing. My husband and I have received many accusations of, “You don’t understand me. You make me do things that I don’t want to do. This is too hard. I won’t do it.”
He’s wrong that we don’t understand him. Yes, we do make him try to do things he doesn’t want to do. Sometimes he finds out that he does enjoy those things, and sometimes he doesn’t. We just want him to try.
And yes, we ask each of our children to do hard things. We want them to go grow, learn, and try new things. It’s okay to fail; especially now when the stakes are low. We learn from our failures and from challenging ourselves.
My son’s school offered a math bootcamp to give the kids an idea of what to expect from the class in the fall. The class is free, isn’t graded, and there’s no credit. It was the perfect way to allay some of his fears and to give him an idea of what he will encounter in the fall.
The first week did not go well. There were a lot of tears and angry rants about why we are making him take the class. My husband and I stood firm that all we wanted was for him to try, to challenge himself, and to put in some effort.
We also knew that we would probably let him drop down to Algebra 2 in the fall. But why make him continue with this summer class if we already knew that we would ask for a change in classes? Because we knew he was capable, we knew he wasn’t putting in the effort, and it’s perfectly okay to challenge our children. By the way, the lack of pencil and paper during the online class was a pretty good indicator he wasn’t putting in the work.
We just finished the second week of the class. Earlier in the week, I printed out the optional math packet for each of us. I sat myself next to him and started working quietly on the math problems while he goofed around online. He left me to get a snack, tease his siblings, and avoid me. I continued working.
Just to be clear, my background is as a reading specialist. I’m pretty sure I have dyscalculia and I struggle to process math problems. I have to rely on notes and have formulas in front of me. I cannot go by memory. Give me a passage of literature to analyze and I’m yours. Give me a word problem and I get lost between point A and B.
Nonetheless I kept working. I strongly encouraged him to join me back at the dining room table. And when I say I encouraged, I yelled and told him to get his ass back in the chair. I was done with the shenanigans.
But he started working. There were groans of frustration. Lots of tapping on keys from both of us as we looked at various math sites to help us muddle through some of the problems. He found his groove quickly and started solving math problems easily on his own. I texted friends and former colleagues to help me where math sites couldn’t. After each section we compared answers. Most of the time they were the same and when they weren’t, we looked to see where the mistakes were. They were usually mine. He would show me where I made a mistake and we discussed the process so that I could understand. He became the teacher.
It’s been four days of math problems. I have sat each day and worked with him for an hour before class. He takes a break for lunch before his online class starts and I continue to muddle through. When he’s in class I stay where I am and continue to work on those problems. When class is over, we call it a day. For two and a half hours everyday this reading specialist turned writer sits to do math problems.
The angry rants have dissipated. The “I can’t do this,” has turned into, “Mama, can you help me here?” or “Yes, I can explain how I got that answer. Do you want me to show you, Mama?”
There are no longer tears. I no longer have to tell him to try. He now knows that I understand him when he’s frustrated because he’s seen me frustrated when I can’t solve a problem. But he sees me working on it until I get the right answer, even if he’s done with his class and we’re done for the day.
We’re still letting him take Algebra 2 in the fall. But now he knows he can do hard things and we don’t expect perfection. We just want him to try.
We’re sitting down and putting in the work and improving our relationship one math problem at a time.