Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Teaching My Son (Post One of Many?)

I started out really believing in unschooling. (Advice to self: Beliefs are dangerous.) My son has attended a free school, where he didn't have to attend classes (K-2), and then was homeschooled at the homes of friends (I'm a single parent), in groups of 2 to 8, with very little required of him. He has learned a lot over the years, but not in the conventional ways. If you're an advocate of unschooling, that may not sound like a problem at all. But for him it was. He thought he was 'behind' in reading, and felt bad about that. He totally avoided math because of how far behind he thought he was. He thinks he's dumb because he hasn't done the conventional academics.

Now he wants to go to a 'normal' school. So I signed him up for 8th grade at a charter school his friend goes to. (I've heard great things about it, and it is supposed to be project-based.*) Part of going to a regular school means catching up on all the 'regular subjects.' So I've begun requiring him to do 'academics' daily. (He asks if he has to. I say yes. He then shows subtle signs of relief. He really wants me to make him do this. This blows my mind.)

About a month ago, we started with 15 minutes of reading and 15 minutes of handwriting practice each day. I don't care about his handwriting. He does. He is so embarrassed about it that he resisted signing in for his trampoline class. A few weeks ago, I added spelling (his desire), geography (identifying the states), and math. This week we're adding science and an essay on the history of bikes. My opinion is that the only things he really needs to catch up on are math and writing (essays, stories, ...). It helps that we're doing this, because he also needs to become more aware of conventions - how to write dates, what schoolwork looks like.

For math, we're using Beast Academy. We started with book 3A. Yes, the 3 means third grade. We don't mention it, but he knows this is "supposed to be" for younger kids. Beast Academy has challenging work, though, and if we make it though all eight of the levels (3A-D and 4A-D), I think he'll be pretty well-prepared to join a class of 8th graders. I will look over the 'standards' for 5th to 7th grade later this summer, and see what might be missing from what we're doing. I have made a math plan for the next 14 weeks, leaving out some of the topics in the Beast Academy books (perfect squares, variables, counting, logic, probability). I'm sure they are excellent, but my goal was to find a way to pare it down, so he gets as much as possible of the foundational skills he'll need, in the short time we have before he starts 8th grade.

The first day that we did math, he was sitting next to me, saying his answers, waiting for me to confirm before he'd write them down. I did. (What he needs, as he takes on this huge emotional challenge, is support. Once he feels more secure, I'll be able to say things like "How can you decide whether that answer is right or not?")

On the second and third days, I noticed that his wrong answers were usually one off. To me, that meant he wasn't noticing things I notice about even and odd numbers. I printed out something from the nrich site that looked good. We haven't tried it yet.

It's very fun for me to be planning out his math curriculum. But this is very stressful for him, so our work time can be full of conflict. Once he buckles down and gets started, I get to quietly support him. Mostly I just confirm his answers. He is already seeing progress, and feeling good about it. I am trying to use Denise's technique of buddy math, offering to do every other problem myself, and then talking my way through it. He seems to prefer doing the problems himself most of the time, but let me do one problem last night.

The lessons he's working on are about finding perimeters. It has been a great way for him to work on adding numbers, with something extra thrown in. Most of the shapes have more than six sides. While we were working last night, I told him I noticed that he picked numbers that add to ten, which is a good strategy. I said that some people call those ten-bonds. He said he didn't know them all. I asked him for numbers that add to ten, and he got a bunch. The ones he hadn't mentioned, I asked him about: "Eight and ...?" He was surprised that there were only 5 pairs, I think.  (At least two different stories in Playing with Math address this issue - Prison Math Circle and The Math Haters Come Around.) When he was unsure of 5 plus 8, I told him that I sometimes forget that one myself, and one way to figure it out is to move 2 from the 5 to the 8, so you get 3 and 10.

I am exploring the balance between telling (ten bonds) and helping him to discover (hopefully we'll do that with odds and evens). I am so happy to be doing this, and marveling at how hard it was for me to see that he actually wanted me to make him do it.

*Yes, I agree that charter schools are being used to mess up the regular public schools. Difficult situation all around.


  1. As a kid, I remember the constant feeling of being behind. The fact of modern life is that, in any particular area or skill, there is almost certainly going to be someone somewhere who is ahead in that facet. Looking back, I can now see how much one can accomplish with a moderate, but consistent effort applied over time (including time spent practicing the skills). I hope your son is able to appreciate this and will have an opportunity to impress himself about how far he can get.

    Also, I hope he can savor the things he is learning through the process and not just the end result.

    Good luck!

  2. Well, he still claims to hate math, but I think he is seeing that it's not beyond him. We are now working from Key to Fractions. (The Key to series is pretty straightforward, and I use it with adult students who are having trouble thinking about fractions.) I also bought Art of Problem Solving's Pre-Algebra book, so he could see some math at "his level". He hasn't done anything from that yet, but it's available to glance at.

    "Making him" do schoolwork has been very stressful. He fights it (even though he does want me to make him do it). We're doing ok this week...

  3. Really looking forward to hearing more about your journey with maths and your son. It is a curious process as a teacher, teaching your own kids, isn't it?

  4. I don't feel like I'm teaching him much. Just supporting him as he works through the curricula I've chosen for him. He has not made as much progress as I had hoped this summer. He will definitely be behind in math. I still think he's good at mathematical reasoning. But he will be faced with knowing much less than his classmates (in just a few weeks).

    Once school starts, I hope he'll ask me questions about anything in math class that confuses him. But he may not. I'll definitely blog about anything interesting that comes up.


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