Tag Archives: common core math

Math Night

I’m gonna generalize in this post because I have to. I’m also sort of uniquely positioned to generalize because I see this issue from both sides — being both a teacher and a parent. So I know this is a not-all-parents situation, but man oh man, it feels like too many parents.


Last night was Math Night at the sprouts’ school, and because we are dutiful parents, my wife and I were in attendance.

And, I mean, maybe I’m dumb for thinking Math Night is going to be some sort of *event* — you know, a math-themed sort of celebration with games and events and all. (This is at an elementary school, after all.) But no. Math Night is essentially an expanded parent-teacher conference; a way for the teachers of each grade level to meet with parents en masse and disseminate information about upcoming tests and what standards they’re covering and all of that good stuff. Actually very useful information, but really, just a conference.

Of course, if they call it an “informational meeting on math and standards”, attendance would be even lower than it was. So “Math Night” it is. And they serve pizza. Because nothing brings people in like free cheap pizza.


We go to Math Night.

And I immediately find out what I already knew, which is that I don’t really need to be here. Both of our kids are doing pretty well in math in their classes (which I already knew) and the teachers’ purpose tonight is to sort of explain how the curriculum works and what strategies they’re teaching the kids (which the kids have explained to me). The presentations only take about twenty minutes. Blissfully short, in my opinion. Then there’s a question-and-answer period.

Which is where it goes off the rails.

Look, a question-and-answer period is pretty straightforward. A speaker gives out a bunch of information on a topic. When they’ve finished, they allot extra time for anybody in attendance who didn’t quite get it or who missed something to ask clarifying questions about the topic. You know, information that might directly benefit everybody else in the room, said information being pertinent to the topic at hand. And as I always tell my students, if there’s a question you have after listening to somebody talk, odds are somebody else in the room has the same question, they’re just too afraid to ask it.

But I know what’s coming, because this is not our first Math Night. We’ve done it before. And there is always a parent (or two!) who want to ask questions totally unrelated to the topic or the occasion. They’re sitting here with their kids’ teachers, after all, so why not ask the teachers specific questions about their student specifically?

(This is not the way to do it.)

So the rest of the parents in the room get treated to a lengthy discussion about how this student struggles with her work habits (not the topic) and is struggling with reading (also not the topic) and gets upset when they correct her work (still not the topic). The teachers are uncomfortable as roaches under a sun lamp discussing this stuff in front of the group — you know, because teachers aren’t meant to divulge personal information like that (and also because, y’know, NOT THE TOPIC) — but the mom keeps going on and on. And I’m not really listening and it’s just kind of droning on and man could the clock please go a little faster so this session can end and we can leave and somehow it breaks through the fog:

“I mean, of course, we took her phone away, but I don’t know what to do besides that.”

What? Er — what??

We’re in a 2nd grade class. Kids seven and eight years old. “We took *her* phone away.” Which means it’s the kid’s phone, not mom’s or dad’s phone that the kid uses.

So — let me get this straight. You gave your kid — your (let’s be charitable) eight-year-old kid — a magical internet box of her very own, and you’re confused as to why she gets upset about doing homework? Heck, most adults you come across can’t successfully integrate their lives with these things — we get consumed with social media likes and Youtube rabbit holes and push notifications to the point that they destroy our lives. And your kid has one of their very own.

Gee, I wonder why your kid is having math issues! I flippin’ wonder!

On the one hand, I get it. I really do. Screens are prolific and it’s next to impossible to keep kids off of ’em. Our kids use the tablets to watch garbage before they go to sleep at night, which, okay, yeah, I know, it’s terrible. But the tablets are not theirs, they don’t have ready, instant access to the things just anytime and for lack of anything better to do, and we monitor their time. And yeah, I also get that the “new math” of the Common Core is hard. I’m decent with numbers and even I go a little bit glassy eyed trying to understand some of the techniques they use. (The way they teach regrouping now is … just do yourself a favor and avoid it if you can. They showed us an image of the method and it looked like the hash-mark riddled wall of a twenty-year death row inmate. Hell, they’re teaching the kids “base 10” notation in the 2nd grade now. I don’t think I even heard of base 10 until I was at least 17 and even then struggled with it; and I’d wager that half the adults my age couldn’t explain what base 10 even is.) But you know what that means? That means you have to shake off the dust and learn the stuff so you can help your kid do it.

That’s what being a parent is. You suffer some inconveniences — and often some outright pains-in-the-tuchus — for the benefit of your progeny. That’s the deal you make when you bring a kid into the world.

But the problem isn’t even that this woman’s seven-year-old has a phone of her very own. I mean, that’s a problem, but it’s a relatively minor problem.

The problem is that this woman is the type of parent who’s involved enough to go to the Math Night event in the first place.

As a teacher, I can tell you (and here’s where I generalize) that the parents who come to events for parents are the types of parents who don’t actually need to come to events for parents. What I mean by that is, the parents who come to these things are the parents who are going the extra mile anyway — you’re talking about the top 10-15% of parents when it comes to more-or-less healthy involvement in their kids’ lives. The parents who need to come to these things — the parents of those kids “on the bubble” as it were, who need an extra push to help school make sense and come together — those parents are nowhere to be seen on parent nights. They’re off doing whatever else they have to do that’s more important than their kids’ education.

You see the calculus ticking toward a result, here.

This woman who was here for parent night — and therefore in the top 10-15% of parents — thought that giving her seven-year-old a phone was a good decision. Didn’t know how to help her kid focus.

This is what we’re up against. This is what these kids are up against.

Point is: Math Night is annoying.

And every parent needs to be there.

The Weekly Re-Motivator: Math Problems are Writer Problems

Okay, this is a blarg about writing (mostly), how the fargo did math come into it?

Like this. My wife and I were reading a Buzzfeed article today (yeah, I know) about a dad who sent in a check using Common Core mathematics to send his own sort of indignant statement about his feelings on the Common Core. And yeah, it’s funny. But I also take an interest in this because I’m a teacher and Common Core, like it or not, is kinda my business these days.

Also, I’m a dad whose son is going to be headed off to the hallowed halls of learning soon, so Common Core is doubly my jam. Apparently, lots of parents in my generation struggle with the way they’re teaching math now, and that’s a problem, because math is hard enough for kids without coming home and seeing that their parents can’t do it either. Which is not a situation that I want my kids to be in. So I did a quick search to see if I could get a handle on this “new math” thing.

And you know what? It wasn’t that bad. For clarity, here’s what I read:

Lifted from Business Insider:

First, Carney explains the old way subtraction was taught:

Take this: 474-195.

Old way: Try 4-5. Nope. So cross out 7, carry the 1. Add 1 to 4. Now subtract 6 5 from 5. Write down 0.

Wait. That’s wrong. It’s not add 1+4. It’s 10+4. So cross out my 1. 10+4=14. Minus 5. Write down 9.

Next subtract 9 from 7. Carrying again. But remember it’s 9 from 6. Dammit. Cross out 4. Add a one … wait, a 10 to 7 … err, rather 6. 16 minus 9 is 7.

The four is crossed out. So it’s a three. Minus one

My answer is: 279.

To get that I had to add and subtract a lot. You can actually count the operations.

(1) 4-5.
(2) 7-1
(3) 10+4
(4) 14-5
(5) 6-9
(6) 4-1
(7) 10+6
(8) 16-9

(9) 3-1

= 279.

Notice how many occasions for error and how much switching between addition and subtraction is required. This is a system built to fail.

Now here’s Carney explaining the new way subtraction is taught:

They key to (new way) is realizing this subtraction problem is asking you to measure the distance between 474 and 195. You do that, in turn, by measuring the distance between landmarks (easy, round numbers). It’s turning math into a road map.

So 474-195.

Starting point is 195. How do we get to 474? Well, first we’ll drive to 200.

(1) 200 is 5 from 195
(2) 400 is 200 from 200
(3) 474 is 74 from 400
(5) 74+200 = 274.
(6) 274 + 5 = 279.

Not only are there fewer steps, the steps are far less complex. You aren’t carrying, or worrying about adding 10 then subtracting the other thing, then remembering to subtract one from the other column. It’s much straighter.

Now, if you’re like me, you probably read that and experienced a bit of skepticism. The way we learned it is simple; why complicate it by bringing in addition?

Except that the way we learned it isn’t simple. It isn’t any simpler than any other way. It’s only simple to us because that’s how we learned it, and we have, god, I dunno, maybe about ten thousand repetitions of it throughout our educational careers reinforcing that way of doing it? Of course our way is simple and this looks like gibberish.

But our way of doing math is no more intuitive for a child than this “new” way is. One way or another, kids have to be taught subtraction, and whether they do it this way or our way or some completely different way entirely (let’s come back around to this discussion in twenty years or so), the important thing is whether they get the right answer or not.

Come to think of it…

I seem to recall there being some argument about the way math was being taught around the time was being taught math. Lots of parents couldn’t wrap their heads around it. Tom Lehrer even had a song about it:

Which is great for making you feel very, very confused if you never learned how to do math in base 8. (What, you didn’t learn how to do math in base 8? That’s okay, NOBODY knows how to do math in base 8.)

Back to my point: there’s pushback on the current state of affairs in math classrooms. So the fargo what? There is always controversy about what’s going on in classrooms. Like it or not, our kids are in those classrooms, and no small measure of their success in life depends upon their success in their classrooms. So, to my way of thinking, digging in your heels and saying “No, this new math is stupid, I don’t get it, and I don’t see why my kid has to learn it” is a little bit like a dinosaur shouting at the oncoming meteor that if it’s all just the same, he’d like to get on munching on these palm fronds.


This iteration of mathematical thinking is here. It’s time to get on the train, whether it makes sense to you or not. Guess what? If you’re a parent, it’s your job to make sure you understand at least some part of what your kid is learning in school. And I’d much rather take a little time to learn something myself so that, when my kid comes home with a math problem he doesn’t understand, we can work through it together, than the alternatives: he flunks out since he sees dad doesn’t care enough about math to learn it, or we hire a tutor because dad can’t be bothered.

If you struggle with the way they do math, I’m not judging you.

But if you are sitting here insisting that Common Core math is bad and needs to be repealed because you don’t understand it, then I am judging you.

I’m not saying it’s perfect. Common Core in all disciplines has no shortage of flaws, but holy cheese doodles, at least educators are trying new things to fix our abysmal test scores. Point is, for the moment, this is the only train running. You can either hop on or walk.


This is a writing blog, as I said before, so — is there a tie-in here to writing?

You betcha.

Because the person who can’t — or won’t — wrap his or her mind about the “new math” is in a rut. They’re stuck in a routine that’s comfortable, that they see no reason to change. Which is all fine and well as long as they stay insulated in their own particular corner of the world.

But, short of living out your life on a mountainside, draping yourself in the skins of the animals you slay for food, the world has a funny way of not allowing you to remain insulated. You have to interact with other minds, which means interacting with other ways of thinking.

The good writer will embrace this inevitability. He’ll adapt his craft based on new things he learns, he’ll absorb and experiment with ideas from the world outside his bubble. He’ll continue to craft stories and characters and worlds that reflect the changes going on in the world around him rather than rowing his boat backwards against the current. The good writer — hell, the good human — will see something that challenges his way of thinking and examine it, poke at it, see what makes it tick, rather than casting it aside as a foolish diversion.

To do otherwise is to live in the past.

To do otherwise is the antithesis of growth.

To do otherwise is the root of so much conflict in our world it absolutely makes my head spin.

Give the new stuff a try. Just because it’s strange to you at first doesn’t make it wrong. It just means you haven’t tried it yet.

This weekly Re-Motivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every Saturday, I use LindaGHill‘s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.

%d bloggers like this: