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Embracing the Grind

I think we can agree that today’s society is all about instant gratification. The latest news cycle can be viewed at a touch of a button. If my daughter wants to watch her favorite cartoon we can instantaneously pull it up on our phones. That song I just heard can be mine at a touch of a button. It’s our modern world. Very few things require patience.

Math still remains virtually untouched. As much as YouTube and Kahn Academy has enhanced our ability to learn, mastery only comes from the daily grind of practice. Cramming the night before might bail a student out for the next day’s test, but it won’t help when you need to apply it to a new concept in two weeks. Math is one of our last disciplines where one needs some elbow grease and a can-do attitude. Embrace math for what it can help develop, not for the means to end. My favorite part of teaching are the countless times students have solved problems that couldn’t previously have imagined. Does it take hard work? Yes. Is it a grind? Yes. Can you do things that you never thought possible before? Yes. Like life, you get from math what you put into it.

High School Math (Teenager) = Doing Your Taxes (Adult)

The vast majority of adults pay someone else to get their taxes done. There are those that do their taxes on their own. There are those that avoid taxes completely and have to suffer the consequences. You also have accountants. They have made a profession out of helping people with their taxes. The point is, taxes are inevitable. High school math is pretty much the same thing… just for teenagers. Whether one likes it or dislikes it, can do it on their own or has to hire outside help to survive, the point is, we must get through it. Talk to someone about the math classes they took in school and you won’t hear, “I didn’t have to take math!” Try asking someone about taxes and you won’t hear “I don’t have to pay them!” Like taxes, the journey through high school math is exactly what we make it out to be. For some it’s just a means to an end. For others it changes their whole life because it becomes the foundation for their profession.

“How can my child improve their grade?”

As a teacher, my least favorite question.  A student’s grade should reflect their understanding.  The best way to improve math competence is to get in front of it BEFORE it becomes a problem.  There is no quick fix.  Tutors can definitely help but that obviously come at a price.

However, if your child is currently getting a poor grade these four questions can zero in on the problem.   Is it lack of effort either in class or at home?  Is it lack of skills?  Is lack of conceptual knowledge?  Have there been extenuating circumstances (health issues, family issues, excessive absences, etc.)?  These issues can certainly be intertwined as well.  The answer to all four questions very well could be yes.  Contact your child’s teacher.  If you can’t get good feedback from the teacher then you need to have a sit-down-honest conversation with them.  Have the conversation calmly and non-judgemental.  Let them know “this is where we are at and we need to be honest so we can move forward correctly!”  Always remember that teenagers will “manipulate the truth for a favorable outcome.”  If they say they “kind of” get it then they don’t understand the concept.  If they say they make “silly mistakes” then their skills are letting them down.  If they say their teacher “doesn’t explain it” then they are distracted in class.  Its the teenage way to deflect blame.  Always come back to what can you and your child do to improve.  Don’t rely on others.

Lastly, develop a plan to move forward.  A “C” is the worst possible grade a student can get for the final mark in a high school math class.  A “C” stands for “C”ontinue with “C”rappy skills.  Remember that math is cumulative.  Poor skills are like a snowball that picks up speed and volume to the point it can crush somebody (really dramatic I know).  What a student doesn’t have mastered will ultimately come back to rear its ugly head.  At least if a student gets a grade where they can’t move on, they will be placed back in an appropriate class.  The worse thing we can do as adults is force kids into thing they’re not ready for.  Use the summer or down periods to hone in on those skills they’ll need in the next year, semester, or quarter.  Treat math like reading.  One will only be successful by consistently doing it.

“What can I do to help my child in math?”

Before I can answer this question, there’s two things you need to know about MOST teenagers: 1) They want the easiest path possible.  2)  They will manipulate the truth for a favorable outcome.  If you feel these aren’t true for you child then, congratulations, you truly have a unique teenager!

So the first answer to the original question?  Help them find their motivation!!!  Its impossible to convince a teenager (and most adults) that math is important when they already have it in their head that its not.  Don’t even try.  Instead motivate them from the standpoint that doing well in school opens doors that will otherwise close.  The truth is that students that struggle mathematically often end up taking the most math classes.  It can get really frustrating really fast.

The second honest answer?  Push and support.  Push them to do their best and support them with bumps along the way.  Remember that this a marathon not a sprint.  There are no quick fixes.  A student struggling in math either lacks the skills to solve the problem or the understanding behind the concept.  Hard work can help with both of things but wanting to work hard comes from motivation.  You can see the symbiotic relationship we have here.

My Math (Pre-Algebra thru Pre-Calculus) Story

I am a product of two teachers.  My mother was a middle school physical science teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District for 32 years while my father taught high school math for 37 years in the William S. Hart School District.  I guess you could say my life’s plan was to teach.  As a teenager, however, that’s certainly not what I wanted.

I took Algebra 1 in 8th grade and got a 98% in the class. “Wow you’re a math genius!” Actually no I’m not. The summer before I took Algebra 1 my father had me work through a course he created that was only about how to add, subtract, multiply and divide integers, fractions and decimals (called the 12 skills of arithmetic). It’s not like I wanted to do it but my father rewarded me with baseball cards (my favorite junior high hobby) for each test I got an A on. From there I had the arithmetic skills needed to be successful in Algebra 1.

When I took Algebra 1, my father would give me practice tests that I couldn’t stop taking until I earned a 100%. See in my house as a child, especially in math, there was no doing something to just complete it… it had to be mastered. My Algebra 1 skills were fantastic and, man, was I going to need them.

My 9th grade year I went to Valencia High School which was in its first year of existence in 1994. We had only 9th and 10th graders on campus. My father moved from Canyon High School to Valencia High School in 1994 and become their first math department chair. For the first time in his life my father had the opportunity to teach one of his children. Little 9th grade me had my own father for Honors Geometry as an embarrassed-of-your-parents 14 year old.

Honors Geometry was difficult for me because I was an Algebra guy. In Geometry you have to apply theorems, definitions, and postulates. There’s very little skill work.  For example if you don’t understand what an inscribed angle is, its impossible to calculate the inscribed angle.  In Algebra you can prepare the night before the test and still do alright just by practicing problems.  In Geometry, the math isn’t difficult but you do have to understand what is happening.  Now remember I had my own father for math.  What he did even in Honors Geometry is half of the final 2nd semester was also an Algebra 1 final.  With somebody who had over 30 years teaching upper level math, he knew how important Algebra 1 was to the future of our math lives.  Its for this reason and my strong background in Algebra 1 from 8th grade that I was on my way to being successful in Algebra 2.

I took Honors Algebra 2/Trig. my sophomore year with my father as a teacher for a second time.  I had all the necessary skills to be successful because my Algebra 1 foundation was solid.  It did not, however, mean I could just show up and do well.  I had to work to learn new concepts.  The H. Algebra 2 course I took was hard.  I struggled with Logarithms, Sequences and Series, Conics, Trigonometric Graphs just like everyone else.  These are difficult concepts the first time you do them.  While I can admit I didn’t really understand them, I still did well on exams because I practiced and practiced and practiced.

My junior year I took Honors Math Analysis (which today is Honors Pre-Calculus in our district) from, again, my father.  I did really well first semester because it was a repeat of Honors Algebra 2/Trig.  Second semester was hard once again.  Polar Coordinates, Analytical Trigonometry and Vectors were brutal for me.  I again percervered.  I wouldn’t have been able to tell you what any of those concepts meant but I was able to push ahead.  Math was becoming test of my willingness to survive.  It was certainly hard but I was proving it to be not impossible.  Unfortunately, right around the corner, was a course I was not mentally prepared for….

The Common Parent Questions

Being a parent of a teenager can be a daunting task in almost every aspect of life.  I’ve found math can be a huge level of stress for the entire family.  I’ve comprised a list of the most common questions I’ve heard through the years.

“What can I do to help my child in math?”

“How can my child improve their grade?”

“Do I need to hire a tutor?”

“Why does my child’s math homework take them forever?”

“What math class should my child take next year?”

“What’s the difference between regular, honors, and AP classes?”

“What can my child do in the summer to get ahead?”

We will delve into these questions in future posts.

Have more questions to ask?  Feel free to comment and get the conversation going.