My kids have math brains. Around age 4, before heading to preschool or kindergarten, I realized my son Cole had a grasp on spatial awareness and number sense that surpassed my post-30 brain. It kind of freaked me out.
I say this as an intelligent woman who went to a top university and completed a master’s degree with honors. The one B keeping me from a graduate program 4.0 GPA? Statistics. Even the version of the class for right brained folks was a constant challenge for me.
Math kids are not a bad thing. My husband and I are both English teachers—he’s high school, I’m community college. We love words and books and poetry and our jobs. But humanities degrees are not known for being high paying. Or even employable (especially in higher education). Math on the other hand—engineer, rocket scientist, pharmacist, jobs I haven’t even heard of being invented yet.
To try to be a helpful mama I’m doing Khan Academy along with my two sons. There are dozens of free, online math programs and this is one their school uses. Essentially, you choose a level—grade levels for little kids, then ‘high school and beyond’ broken into subjects like algebra, integral calculus, etc. The last time I took a math class was back during the days of grunge when I despised trigonometry more than anything in my 16 years of life. I didn’t have to take a drop of math in college.
Now here I am. I started with Algebra 1, thinking I could refresh material I knew had been in my brain at some point. Khan asks you questions in groups of five or six, all about the same topic. Before you can ‘master’ something you have to go through five levels, spread over a number of days. You can earn badges or awards for working quickly, working every day, not giving up, and other feats.
Quadratic equation? I remember this. First, outside, inside, last for multiplying. Graphing? Rise over run. Quickly I ran into a problem: the thimble full of algebra skills in my head only stacked up to about 20 percent of the program. There are all kinds of things I don’t think even existed in 1994. Negative exponents? Parabolas? Clearly people have been inventing new math stuff while I wasn’t looking.
My kids are supposed to do 10 minutes a day on this program; sometimes the 9 year old does a little more, but it just depends. They both like to have someone sit near them to ooh and ahh over the virtual badges they earn: someone got a Magellan sun badge recently for mastering 100 skills. I usually split my time up as five or ten minutes in the afternoon, while the kids are watching, with another 10 or 15 before going to bed. That way I can have a test or Mastery Challenge ready for the boys to see each day.
What is sweet is my boys’ desire to be mom’s cheerleader. I’m a little embarrassed at how much I talk to myself trying to figure out problems—before this, I didn’t know I had this habit. If I get something wrong, a little orange button shakes on the screen. Owen, who’s 5, will pat me on the shoulder and tell me to try again. Cole mimics back what he’s heard me say dozens of times: “Everybody makes mistakes mom. That’s part of life.” Khan, just like a good parent, won’t let you move on until you figure it out. You can ask for hints that walk you through the problem step by step. Then you try again.
At first I was uncomfortable having my sons watch me, seeing how much I am struggling. Then I remembered that these kids are the reason I’m stretching my brain in the first place. I want to be able to help with homework and not feel panicked when they have a question. But I also want to model continual learning, how graduating from high school or college doesn’t mean you can stop pushing your brain.
I worry about the tendency we all have to quit when the going gets rough. I want my sons to be willing to do hard things, even if it means failing along the way. I can admit that perseverance is not my first instinct; by adulthood I have figured out my talents and try to focus on those areas. Khan Academy is something I wouldn’t do without the impetus of my kids, no doubt about it. Now that I’m about month in (and have achieved 41 percent mastery) I’m proud of myself and plan to continue on to higher and scarier levels of math.
Like every aspect of parenting, I’m not sure what lessons are being learned while I slog through Algebra 1. It is good for me, if nothing else. Maybe one day my kids will tell their kids about that one time when grandma started muttering about functions while wandering around the house. Or maybe they’ll mention me during their Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Either way works for me.
Eliana Osborn is a mother of two, wife to one, English professor to thousands. She tweest @Eliana0Eliana
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