Thursday, October 2, 2008

Math Problems

Warning: I'm about to sound like one of those stand-up comics whose observational humour rocked the 80's and shaped the comedy of today. For this I apologize.
WHAT is WITH those skill-testing questions you have to answer every time you enter a contest?!
In magazines, online, even on kids' cereal boxes, it seems every contest out there requires you to do some multi-operational mathematical equation in order to be eligible to win. So, what, the mathematically challenged among us don't deserve awesome prizes we could never afford to buy ourselves? If the world wasn't already such a messed-up place, we'd recognize this as blatant discrimination. But it does beg a compelling question. Is there a government conspiracy to improve our math skills?
Whoa, I think I got a little crazy there for a minute.
In my last life, and there have been a few, I taught grade 6. In the district where I taught, there was a manditory professional development project we all participated in where we picked an area or two of growth for ourselves and focussed on that all year. During my last 2 years in the classroom, my focus was my math program. For those who don't spend much time in a classroom setting, math is the dinosaur of the elementary education system. While language arts, science and social studies move ever upward, evolving with the professionals who seek to create a meaningful and enlightened learning experience for their students, math is one of those things that stumps us. And when we're stumped, we tend to go back to what we know.
Now, I do not profess in any way to be talented in the area of math. I routinely find myself having to count using my fingers. But as a teacher, I knew instinctively that there must be some better way to teach math to children than cracking open a musty old text book from 1985 (or 2003, for that matter) and drumming the concepts into their little heads through a mind-numbing routine of rote memorization and practice, practice, practice in those lined and margined exercise books that would later end up in a landfill. Don't get me wrong, practice is still necessary, but a little balance never hurts.
So I embarked on a plan. I brought in flyers and gave the kids "cheques" and set them free to budget their money. We read books that had connections with mathematical concepts we were learning. And we played games. Lots and lots of games. Eventually, the kids were coming up with games of their own and writing their own (insert horrified shriek here) WORD PROBLEMS. And wouldn't you know it, even kids with learning disabilities pertaining specifically to math started to have success when we had to inevitably get back to worksheets and tests.
Now, of course, we're not all teachers, but this brings me to the subject of my own two kids--the product of two pretty mathematically clueless people--who already show signs of being far more interested in reading and singing than in math and science. How do we go about setting them up for success at school? Please don't say Flash Cards.
While the purist in me resists at all cost the corporate solution to this question--things like Leapsters and the WALL-E Learning Laptop (I foresee trouble with Firstborn over this one)--there are other things I should really be doing to help them not wake up in a cold sweat every time there's a math test coming up. I figure in our house a couple of good ways to start would be a piggy bank and a lot of baking. I'll let you know how Rosemary's Baby does with 6 cups of flour and a 3-speed mixer.
As for me, I really hope my answer of 16 on the online contest I entered last night was correct. I really want that $1000 in Coach products. However, having never won a thing in my life, I have to wonder, even if I do get the skill-testing question right, what are the odds?
No, really, I want to know.

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