Helping with Math Homework (When You Don’t Understand)

Math HomeworkThis post was originally written for and published on the Presbyterian Day School blog.

Generally speaking, my wife and I take a hands-off approach to our kids’ homework. We certainly want our four children to do well in school. We want to encourage and assist them along the way, but Debbie and I also want them to be independent and resourceful so we think it’s good for them to struggle sometimes. Therefore, when it comes to our kids’ homework, we avoid being too helpful and encourage them to figure things out on their own.

For the most part, this approach has served our family well. Our children usually complete their homework independently, and homework rarely results in any familial trauma–but not always. Occasionally, we have homework agony when one of our kids struggles with an assignment they just cannot understand–especially when the endeavor involves math. I’m an English language arts teacher. My wife teaches the visual arts. Neither of us feels particularly proficient when it comes to math.

Here are five things we do to help with math homework (we don’t even understand):

  1. Watch the teacher’s tutorial or read through the student’s notes with our child. Then, we ask our child to explain the lesson in his own words. I’m amazed how often this solves the problem as my child sees or hears something he missed during the initial instruction. Additionally, if my child can teach it to me, he’s most likely going to understand and remember it.
  2. Check out a different video tutorial. Sometimes my child just needs the concept to be explained in a different way than the way his teacher taught it. Fortunately, we live in a time when one can learn just about anything through the internet. Two places we’ve tried for math tutorials are PatrickJMT and Khan Academy. Both provide quality videos on many different math concepts.
  3. Plug the problem into an online computational problem solver. Both Wolfram Alpha and Discovery Education’s WebMath are immensely useful tools. They not only answer problems but also provide explanations so my child can see how the problem is solved and have another explanation of how to approach the question.
  4. Have my child phone a friend. In the wise words of The Beatles: “I get by with a little help from my friends.” Indeed I do and my kids do, too. Everybody needs help sometimes, and it’s important my kids learn how to ask their peers for help. (We’ve been known to ask grandparents, aunts, and uncles, too.) In college, I always made new friends and exchanged phone numbers with other students in my classes. Then, if I missed a class or needed homework help, I had friends I could call.
  5. Have my child email his teacher, ask his question, and move on. I have my child send the email in order to take ownership of his own learning. And believe it or not, I’ve found most teachers to be helpful, reasonable people. While they may not respond to the email immediately, they’ve always taken the time to help my child understand the concept with which he’s struggling. Then, we move on. If my child needs additional help, he’s responsible for talking with his teacher or joining the next help session.

Having made an attempt to do his best, my child can leave for school the next morning with looming questions about last night’s math homework. That’s perfectly okay. As parents, Debbie and I are less concerned that our kids get all the right answers and more concerned that they learn to ask questions, seek help, and find creative solutions when they struggle.

Lennon, John, and Paul McCartney. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The Beatles. Capitol Records, 1967. Vinyl recording.

My Homework

homeworkSo… This morning, my friend Bill tagged me in a “Homework” blog meme. I have no idea how this whole thing started, but according to Bill, “this meme has an important purpose: To give readers a look behind the digital masks that writers show outwardly to the world.” So what masks am I wearing as I share in this space? Hmm. I guess I need to spend some time reflecting on that. After all, the goal for this blog is to have an open, honest space where I share about my life and professional practice. I’m going to need to come back to this idea in a future post. For now, I have a homework assignment to complete (and papers to assess, too), and I’ve needed to update this blog anyway. (Okay, task number one is complete.)

The second task of my assignment is to share eleven random facts that readers of my blog probably don’t know about me:

1. When I was 13, my dad took our family to Los Angeles for the 1984 Summer Olympics. We were in the stadium for the women’s 3000 meter final, and I was less than 50 feet away from the spot where Zola Budd and Mary Decker had their collision.  

2. I am a total chicken when it comes to horror movies. I absolutely refuse to watch them. In fact, I’m still traumatized by the original movie versions of Carrie and A Nightmare on Elm Street.

3. I have a crush on Dame Judi and have for a long time.

4. I love teaching 6th grade, which is funny because I always wanted to teach high school seniors and then become a principal. I struggle with a tension between wanting to teach students and wanting to lead a school.

5. I start reading lots of books that I never finish. I feel a sense of shame about it. What is that all about?

6. My wife is a better reader than I am. I love to read, but she’s a voracious reader. In fact, I dream of being able to read like she does. Seriously, she’s amazing. She’s also a better teacher than I am. It’s not a competition; if it were, it wouldn’t even be close.

7. I could easily eat a box of frozen fruit popsicles every day. Every. Single. Day.

8. I prefer books, movies, or music to sports. I don’t really follow sports. I do have season tickets for University of Memphis football, but they don’t really inspire fanaticism. I occasionally enjoy watching professional tennis, and I like GolTV on nights when I cannot sleep, but I’m not “with it” when it comes to sports. Having said that, I should tell you two things. First, I read Geoff Calkins almost every day. Second, my team is in the finals of my school’s fantasy football league championship. Go team!

9. I’m getting ready to train for another marathon even though I haven’t run my first one yet. How’s that for complexity?

10. There’s a fine line between faith and doubt. I always seem to walk that line teetering from one side to the other. I wish I didn’t, but I do.

11. In another life I’m a performer.

My third task is to respond to eleven questions from Bill:

1. Grande Soy Green Tea Frappuccino with Extra Whip or House Blend Black? I’ll have the black coffee, but I’m hoping you have enough sense to serve this.

2. If you were going to write a book, what would its title be? Shut Up And Keep Spinning the Plates (Honestly, I have no idea.)

3. Rate graphic novels on a scale of 1-10, with 1 representing “useless” and 10 representing “simply amazing.” 5. I’m kind of indifferent in this debate. I’ve never seen a graphic novel turn a reluctant reader into a passionate reader, but some people may find them useful so I don’t have a problem with them.

4. What member of your digital network has had the greatest impact on your professional growth?  I cannot differentiate between my digital and non-digital network any more. I just have a network and those relationships develop in many places. I cannot name just one person either. After all, one cannot quantify learning no matter how hard he might try. Having said that, I admit the folks that immediately came my mind are Michael & Melanie Semore, John Spencer, Bill FerriterHadley Ferguson, Alice Parker, and Jill Gough.

5. How do you feel about the holidays? Stressed.

6. Rate the following movies in order from best to worst:  Christmas Vacation, Miracle on 34th Street, A Christmas Story, How the Grinch Stole Christmas (animated version). Christmas Vacation, A Christmas Story, Miracle on 34th Street (the original), How the Grinch Stole Christmas (animated version)

7. What is the best gift that you’ve ever gotten? Romans 6:23

8. If you had an extra $100 to give away to charity, who would you give it to? HopeWorks would get the first $100. St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital would get the next $100.

9. What are you the proudest of? Debbie and I have been together for 9 years. We will celebrate our 9th wedding anniversary next June. I’m crazy about her and our family.

10. What was the worst trouble that you ever got into as a child? As a teenager, I told a whopper of a lie to my parents. It was a big deal and it was awful. I won’t share the details. I just won’t. It was a day I’ll never forget, but I wish I could. I did other things that were stupid and/or mischievous, but this one haunts me. Now let’s move on.

11. What was the last blog entry that you left a comment on?  What motivated you to leave a comment on that entry? I left a comment on Bill’s blog primarily because he called me out in it. Sometimes Justin Stortz’s posts resonate so deeply in me that I feel compelled to comment.

The fourth task is to create a list 11  bloggers that now have to answer eleven questions from me. Here’s my list:

  1. Stephen Davis
  2. Bob Dillon
  3. Hadley Ferguson
  4. Jill Gough
  5. Yoon Soo Lim
  6. Jennifer Orr
  7. Alice M. Parker
  8. Edna Sackson
  9. Chad Segersten
  10. Justin Stortz
  11. Wanda Terral

The fifth task is to create a list of eleven questions for the above folks to answer:

  1. If you could take a “dream” vacation, what would it be?
  2. Hollywood is casting a biopic about you. Who should be cast in the lead role?
  3. The director changed her mind and has decided to create a reality show about you instead. What should the title be?
  4. What’s your favorite book?
  5. We take a trip to Yolo, one of those fill-your-own-cup frozen yogurt shops. What all do you put in your cup?
  6. It’s a busy night at the karaoke bar. You’ve got one chance to blow away the crowd and leave your mark. What will you sing?
  7. Who or what inspires you most?
  8. What was your favorite class in college or graduate school?
  9. If you could snap your fingers and magically change one thing (only 1) about your job, what would it be?
  10. Name one important thing on your “bucket list.”
  11. What’s your favorite holiday tradition?

So tag–you guys are it.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Acknowledge the nominating blogger.
  2. Share 11 random facts about yourself.
  3. Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger has created for you.
  4. List 11 bloggers.
  5. Post 11 questions for the bloggers you nominate to answer, and let all the bloggers know they have been nominated. Don’t nominate a blogger who has nominated you.

Post back here with a link after you write your response. Go ahead, you have homework.