“Be Sure to Show Your Work!”

These are dreaded words emanating from math teachers.   My 12-year-old son detests these words as much as I do.   He now has accelerated much too quickly for my taste into middle school.  Gone are the days of identifying odd versus even numbers on a page.  We have now shifted into nuclear-meltdown DEFCON 5 status with math.  

Now we are on to using ratios to represent relationships between different quantities, sizes, and values.  We have leaped forward and cluelessly into solving dizzying word problems calculating percents and plotting things on charts, graphs, and tables.  And, God help us all, we are dividing fractions by fractions and learning the “basics” of statistics.  By the way, there are no “basics” of statistics.

My son, a bright and most-always delightful young man, routinely will bring home his math homework and toss it defiantly upon the dining room table.  He will then understandably shuffle to the couch for a well-deserved respite from the school day.   And so, begins the high- level negotiations with his father about when homework shall be faced.

“Son (not his real name so as to protect the guilty), we should get a jump on this math homework, soon!” says his hapless father.

The boy’s retort is usually his standard, “Dad, I just need about 30 to 120 minutes of chill time with YouTube and then we can (sigh) look at homework.”

I then tell him we will accommodate his “30-minute request” as opposed to the very irresponsible request for two full hours watching young men do basketball trick shots or set up endless strings of dominoes and letting them fly on YouTube.   I think to myself that I am here to be his rock, his harbor from the mathematical storm of homework.  Only I can be his formidable tutor.

30 minutes later, we sit to tackle said homework and I instantly know I am way in over my head.

Perhaps we tackle a word problem first.  I am fairly adept at looking at such and calculating mental estimates for a nearly-there solution, and if the question is a multiple-choice question, we are in like Flynn!  But often, my son then looks sheepishly up to say those very words that we despise so very much, “Dad, my teacher says I need to show my work.”

Uh huh.  I see.  Yes, apparently, it’s not enough to tell my son that it’s “just the answer.”  I can try and show him the mental gymnastics I went through to arrive at my dim-witted estimation, but apparently, I now need to sharpen the pencil and really, thoroughly detail the steps with him.  Now we both clutch our own individual foreheads in the hope that staring at the dining table will inspire us.   

Gloriously, we see that my son took some notes during class while the teacher was showing everyone how to arrive at answering these types of problems.  Perfect!  We shall just refer to those notes and all shall be revealed.   

Au contraire.  My son’s note taking is typical for a 12-year-old boy who sees everything as a competition as to how fast you can write things or complete a task.  Reading his notes from math class is similar to being an archeologist brushing back the dust on an ancient manuscript and decoding hieroglyphics.  I wonder if perhaps I have his math notebook turned upside down and am reading the notes the wrong way altogether.

Today’s standardized statewide common-core practicum principles and standards and guidelines, or however they are classified these days, are heady at best and very far afield from Old Man Johnson’s (that’s me) days of yore.  

Teachers these days are absolute saints for putting into practice the apparently well-meaning initiatives drafted to further our kids’ education.  Not to mention, those very same celebrated educators are being asked to do so much above and beyond what used to be asked of teachers.

I feel the same way for parents, like me, who are called upon to “show their work” and help their young burgeoning mathematicians, scientists, and writers around dining-room tables.   Math is a complicated subject for most (right?), and so I never feel altogether bad about myself, as I trust I am not alone. 

I rather enjoy quietly justifying me being mystified by the “new math” with internal shouts of things like the ever popular “Well, my gosh, when is he EVER gonna need to calculate the spatial solution for the dimensions of a room?!”

I then later go to estimate how much wood flooring we need for our guest room, and I am struck by the irony of it all.   God bless math!

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