I knew several of the kids from middle school and had even helped in a math class that some of them were in back in 6th grade. So I liked the relational connection I already had with them, and the teacher that ran the class was a total crack up. I really enjoyed my times helping out. But I was also somewhat frustrated at the position these kids were in. I'd been involved in their middle school and knew that they had already been in remedial classes which were meeting double time just to get them up to speed. These kids weren't dumb. They were double-timing on Algebra and many were still getting these new concepts even at the faster pace. But even when they "got" the concepts, they were still getting problems wrong because they lacked some really basic math skills. Fractions were a continual mystery, no matter how frequently we reexplained them. Decimals were a bit of hocus pocus. And greater and lesser were still concepts they were trying to wrap their heads around. But they knew that a positive slope went up and a negative slope went down. They solved for x like champs. And they coud do lattice multiplication in their sleep. (They just had to use a multiplication chart along the way.) In other words, they seemed to be able to grasp the larger concepts despite having really shoddy foundation work.
Yesterday as I was walking the dogs, we passed a mom and three kids at the park. The older two kids were busy smashing each other's sand castles and getting mad at each other over it. But the youngest was in a stroller by her mom and she called out "Puppy!" as we walked by. Her mom said, "That's right. How many puppies?... Two? Two puppies." The girl was probably only 3 years old and here her mom was teaching her math literacy. How did the mom know to do that?
When I was watching my nephew last week, he was eating carrots and chicken. He had three carrots in front of him on his high chair tray. It just came naturally to me to say, "Three carrots. One. Two. Three." And I pointed to each carrot as I said it.
I think that's what the kids in that high school class had missed out on. Was there anyone saying, "How many puppies?" when they were only three years old? Or were they learning that in kindergarten while all the other kids were beyond that point and cruising on to the concepts of large numbers (counting to 100) and adding numbers (2 puppies walking with that lady and 1 puppy walking with that man over there makes 3 puppies total).
When I was a kid I preferred the Electric Company to Sesame Street. Sesame Street was all about identifying numbers and letters and learning their sounds and values. The Electric Company moved on to phonemes and adding them together to make words. It was exciting stuff. But I probably didn't need the Sesame Street level of education because my mom had already taught me that when I was in a stroller at the park.
How did that mom at the park know to do that? Why do some moms point out that there's two puppies when other moms just smile and say, "Yes, there's a puppy."According to Paul Tough in his book, Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America, parents learn that kind of behavior through their own parents, through their peers, and through reading parenting books and magazines. But many lower income parents simply don't know to do that. They're struggling to get by, focused on other things, or simply aren't in a culture that leads them to talk about early childhood education. Geoffrey Canada's program in Harlem sets out not just to educate children, but to change the culture in which they grow up - to teach value and methods of educating kids through regular life experiences.
I usually help out each year in the school my kids are at. I was a high school math teacher in my pre-parent days and being a parent helper in the classroom enables me to enjoy all of the one-on-one teaching bits without having to worry about discipline or planning. It's really a great gig. But I'm considering, for the first time since my kids entered preschool, helping out at a school that my kids have never attended. There's a local elementary school where these high schoolers I helped this past year used to attend. In some ways I felt like it was really too late to be helping those high school students. I think they're a great bunch of kids and they tried so hard to tackle Algebra. But without that foundation, it always felt illusory. So I'm considering going to where someone should have been 9 years ago for those high schoolers. Despite the fact that I know Algebra and can probably help out in a high school class that many parents might struggle in because they haven't used Algebra in decades, I think it might be worth some kindergartener's while for me to sit down with them and say, "Look at these puppies in this photo. How many puppies do you see?" It's a simple thing. But I hope that it could make the difference in some Algebra class 9 years from now.