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Well Intended / Math: Fascinating and flabergasting

Published 4:10 pm, Thursday, September 26, 2013
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From the backseat, I could see Dad's eyes reflected in the rectangle of rear view mirror.

"Six times eight," he prompts.

I know this one. It rhymes. "Six times eight is 48."

The light turns green and we drive on. Next stop, "Seven times nine." Darn it! I hold both hands discretely behind the driver's seat and begin to fold my right index finger down, using the trick that I still employ when multiplying by nine. He sees me and shakes his head. "You have to know them. You have to know them so well that you don't even have to think about it."

In school, we played math baseball. The teacher would pitch out a problem to the kid who was at home plate. Brian Murai knew his multiplication tables the best in our class. Everyone wanted him on their team.

I had my own children stand with their backs against the wall at the far end of the kitchen while I quizzed them on their multiplication tables.

They could take a small step forward each time they answered a question correctly and when they reached me at the sink (where I was washing dishes) they would be rewarded with a hug, a cookie or the freedom to not be asked any more math questions for the evening.

We worked on math daily, when they were just learning facts. And then, as children are meant to, they became more independent.

Later, I would try to help them with their math worksheets and they would scold me. "You're not supposed to do it, Mom." They had a point, I tended to enjoy the first problem I would help them with so much that I would go on to the next and the next. They learned to think twice before asking my advice.

When my daughter was in seventh grade, I happened to look over her shoulder while she was doing long division. It was a convoluted mess.

She had numbers everywhere and had broken the problem down in such a way that I was confused just looking at it. It wasn't my finest moment.

"What are you doing?" I may have yelled.

She shrugged and claimed, that I didn't know what I was talking about. That her teacher had taught her a special way. That it all worked out the same in the end. That weekend, her father and I sat with her at the kitchen table and worked with her until we were comfortable that she was caught up.

My son skipped a math class earlier this year, and conequently came home one night with homework that was unfamiliar to him. There were equations with exponents and variables and parenthesis filled with negative and positive numbers. Together, we worked through the problems with a combination of what he had just been taught and what I could recall from algebra. By the end of the evening, we had both gained some confidence. The trouble isn't so much that we (adults) have forgotten math, it's that we don't know how to explain it.

I recalled evenings at my childhood kitchen table with my father and my own middle school math text, which we had covered with a brown paper shopping bag. He would try to show me how to manage problems that made perfect sense to him but looked impossible to me. I might have pouted more than I should have.

I mentioned this to him on the phone. He confessed that he loved math and that after years of being busy making a living and raising a family, he was revisiting his own math skills.

He has seen an interview with Salmon Kahn, founder of Kahn Academy and was working through the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) from the beginning. He wanted to know where my kids were in their math classes and offered to help them if they had any questions. We've conference-called him in a couple of times already.

Both kids' teachers are generously available to meet before school most mornings. We sometimes take them up on this offer. Students are (of course) responsible for their own homework and it is useful for them to learn to seek help and to interact with their teachers. I believe that it's important for parents to be involved as well. Even if we are meddlesome.

As you may have guessed, I am not a mathematician. But, I understand math can be really beautiful. I have a broader understanding of the concepts now than I did when I was in school.

If my children get that I think the study of mathematics is valuable and their grandfather believes math is interesting enough to practice in his free time, I can only hope that maybe they will absorb some of our enthusiasm and that they will foster their own fascination with mathematics.

Krista Richards Mann is a Westport writer, and her "Well Intended" column appears every other Friday. She can be reached at kristarichardsmann@gmail.com.