Monday, May 12, 2008

Taught to the Tune of a Hick'ry Stick.

Home-schooling one’s child is so educational, and in such unexpected places. I always assumed Daughter would learn a few things here and there, accrue some new facts and generally become the sort of person her mother could rely on to remember trivial details while doing a crossword puzzle and getting stuck on the four-letter word for trickster god of Norse mythology.


And, to her credit, Daughter is continuing to become that person. She is also learning other facts, and nearly all of them have to do with Who My Mother Really Is. This alarms me. For example, after a week at home, she knew that “Please give me some quiet time, I’m working on the book” really means “I want to read brain-damaging gossip websites while eating foods from my hidden cache of snacks”. Two weeks into home-schooling she had determined the location of the hidden snacks, but more painful than my rapidly-diminishing pile of Gummy Bears is the fact that Daughter now knows I am an idiot. We haven’t left the grade-school curriculum yet and she already views me as the one who gets the scissors with the rounded edges.

I was never anyone’s idea of a great student. Owing to an adorably misguided notion I had a a youth -- specifically that most of the work I was assigned was boring and repetitive -- I was convinced I should make a political statement by throwing pencils at the heads of my classmates. By the time I was attending an academically-rigorous prep school where the work stopped being boring and repetitive I was well beyond the mental state necessary to reevaluate my view of school as being anything but a holding pen. Ergo, like many people out there – perhaps some even reading this blog right now—what I like, I know pretty well; what I don’t like, I usually hire someone to do for me. Or palm off on Consort. This system has worked remarkably well.

Until the beginning of this year, when I was horrified to find out that trains still leave stations in word problems.

Daughter, working on an online math program, called me for help. Ambling in, I was confronted with a word problem. It seemed there were two trains. We, the problem-solver, were taking a train from Woods Hollow into Lake Field and, having arrived, getting on another train for Port Side but, like so many things in life, it wasn’t that easy. One train took an hour to get to the station and arrived every two hours. The other took two hours to arrive and left every three hours. All we were given to work with was their first departure of the day, from which we could extrapolate out this insanely-complex schedule. Our job, whether we chose to accept it or not, was to determine the best departure time so as to spend the least amount of time in Lake Field waiting for our connection, and to give the length of time we would spend in Lake Field. The problem added in passing that the trains were going at a constant rate of speed, as if this would somehow make this hellish bouillabaisse more digestible.

Daughter looked at me expectantly. I felt the blood rush to my feet, far away from the head which was somehow going to be conscripted to address this hideous challenge. This wasn’t algebra. I couldn’t inwardly start my rant about no one needs such skills in the real world. In fact, this was the kind of irritating and relevant task I was asked to do all the time, and I never do well. Consort learned a long time ago not to let me arrange airport connections because I generally end up with six minutes between flights, or two days. To properly appreciate my travel-planning skills, you'd need to pack either rocket-propelled shoes or a cot. Staring at the screen, I stalled.

“Have you...” I breathed in, trying to think of something productive. “Made a chart?”

Oh, that’s good. Either the chart will illuminate the Stygian depths of this puzzle or simply drawing it will waste enough time until Consort returns home.

Daughter sighed. I frequently suggested charts when confronted with math or diagramming sentences.

“I can just wait until Daddy gets home, if you want,” she said, patting my hand. And with that, with the unspoken understanding that Mommy is the kid who eats paste, I was mortified and motivated into helping her solve this word problem. I pulled up a chair and a clean sheet of paper. I stared at the screen and carefully wrote down every single number on that stupid screen. I then stared down at them on the page.

“Well,” I said, and stopped. We both stared at the page. Daughter’s hand came out and patted mine again, softly. Sympathetically. I started again.

“Well,” I said, slightly less definitively and gazed at my pencil. I noticed the lead wasn’t completely pointed and yelped happily, “Ooh, this needs sharpening!”

I dashed off to find a pencil-sharpener, ignoring the one inches from the chair. When I returned several minutes later, Daughter was staring at the screen again. She turned to me and said, “I think I take the 1:15 train.”

I gaped, not the least of which because when I had run away--I mean, gone off to improve my work tools—there hadn’t been a 1:15 train. I looked at the page; she had roughed out the schedule. Reading it, it appeared that yes, the 1:15 from Woods Hollow would leave us with no more than about a half-hour to kill in the Lake Field train station. True, we wouldn’t get to see much of the city of Lake Field, but that was a problem to solve another time. She typed in the answer and answer lit up green, indicating it was right. It seemed a little anticlimactic for a problem of such complexity. Had I done this by myself, I would have expected Gummy Bears shooting from the CD-ROM drive directly into my mouth. The screen went dark for a moment then reactivated, indicating she was entering a new level of complexity.

Daughter said joyfully “Geometry! YEAH!”

My mouth went dry. In that moment, I couldn’t have told you if it was from fear or having eaten paste.


Blogger CDP said...

My eyes still glaze over as soon as I read the words "two trains are leaving a station".

1:15 PM  
Anonymous Jeff said...

My father, an engineer, does math in his sleep. When I took Algebra I failed it twice and then finally passed with a "C" He always told me "If you are bad in Algebra, you will excel in Geometry." Turns out I actually was excelling at Algebra comparatively speaking.

1:33 PM  
Blogger SusannahS said...

That's almost as bad as the "Jane lives in a green house. Bob grows carrots. Who lives in the red house?" problems.
I still tease my parents about the time they tried to help me study for my first algebra test. I failed spectacularly, which was sad because before they "helped'" I had a C-average in the class based on homework and quizzes.
They tried to blame it on The New Math.
Ha. We hired a tutor after that.

1:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Where does one find the recipe for hellish bouillabaisse? Sounds like Emeril...

2:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm in Mensa and I skip the train questions...

8:39 PM  
Blogger Dawn Maria said...

I work as a Para-Educator for a special needs student and her second grade math word problems sometimes stump me. But after the fourth read-through I understand what the question is actually asking us to do. Now as for doing it...

7:38 AM  
Blogger Linda said...

A chart. Yes, a chart is always good. Then I can draw and forget about the trains. Passes the time while waiting, also.

8:34 AM  
Anonymous Christine said...

Don't beat yourself up. Word problems aren't all they're cracked up to be. See the following article in Scientific America.

I felt such joy when I read this. Hopefully you can reach the link. Basically - word problems don't help problem solving skills. Bummer. I wish they had figured this out when I was in school.

9:11 AM  
Blogger cathy said...

Hey Jeff, I feel your pain! As for the train leaving the station, if you depended on me to figure it out and get you there on time.... Well, it would just be sad. My eyes still glaze over when I see those words!

6:00 PM  
Blogger Chatty said...

Recently on Are You Smarter then a Fifth Grader (well, recently for me, as my husband records everything and doles out my favorite shows over time)the math question was "What is any number to the power of zero?" I believe it was a third grade question, but as my head started to reel about then, I'm not sure. The answer is ONE. How can it not be ZERO? Well, because if it were ZERO, then a lot of the rest of the system called math wouldn't work. That was the answer from a math expert, btw, because I looked it up. In fact, nobody has been able to explain this to me satisfactorily. I would appreciate the REAL lowdown on this when Consort and Daughter have a free moment...

12:41 AM  
Blogger Lene Andersen said...

I feel your pain. Once you said "two trains..." the rest started to sound like Charlie Brown's teacher in my head and it was a real struggle to persuade myself to keep reading. I'm glad I did, of course - not only were you funny, but I also feel better for being a bit of an idiot savant. I, too, know what I need to know and not much else and precious little of that involves any sort of math.

I watch my friends who are parents help with homework and really, once was enough for me. Just the thought of homeschooling makes me whimper. I am in awe of you and other homeschooling parents.

11:42 AM  
Blogger OHN said...

Sorry...what was the question? I was looking out the window at the way that one leaf is turned the other way..and then there was this squirrel......
(some days I feel I invented ADD but nobody knew what it was back in the olden days:)

4:17 AM  
Blogger Greg said...

Am I still allowed to read your blog if I actually *like* this type of question?

Please don't kick me off. Pretty please?

10:47 AM  
Blogger David said...

You can still contribute to both of your educations by having her explain her logic to you.

11:19 AM  

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