F**k MathJanuary 27th, 2009 at 13:30
Starting with learning the multiplication tables in third grade, our son became more and more phobic about studying math (and later academics in general), or more specifically, doing math problems for homework or on tests. By eighth grade this storyline climaxed with an incident that shocked his parents and the school staff and sent a strong signal that he needed to chart a different educational course than the one he was on.
He had had a particularly old school math teacher in fifth grade who believed strongly in the “drill and kill” approach to learning the subject, and our son had gotten so frustrated with her and how she ran the class that he had circulated a petition among his classmates and others to ask the school to fire her. After that experience, I think he entered his middle school math classes with great anxiety but managed to barely pass 6th and 7th grade math due to more sympathetic teachers. Our son has been one to sink or swim based on the quality of his relationships with others, an area where he has always shown great aptitude and skill.
But in eighth grade things were coming to a head. We had enrolled our son in a school that trained youth to be actors in the entertainment industry, particularly in commercials. We thought with his intelligence, energy, verbal ability and general people skills, that he might be able to get work as a young actor, helping him develop self-esteem and giving him a focus outside of a part of his life (school) that was growing problematic for him. But the downside of this effort was the requirement that in order to maintain his work permit for doing acting jobs, he had to maintain a B average in his classes and could get no lower than a C in any class. By eighth grade, with performing sufficiently in math class a growing issue, getting a C in math was becoming a huge hurdle.
So in retrospect, where things went very wrong, was when my partner Sally and I, began to intervene, more and more, to help our son do his homework and maintain his grade point average and somehow continue to pass his math class. Our help was unsolicited and actually unwelcomed. He had plenty of adults at school harassing him from 8am to 3pm to do work not of his choosing or interest, without having his parents join in the effort after hours.
Encouraging, cajoling and pestering him to do his homework, particularly in math, subtly but significantly changed the dynamics of our relationship with him. No longer could he count on us to always provide a loving, supportive, and encouraging refuge from the difficult environment he had to navigate at school. From his point of view, we were still often on his side, except when we felt the need to become agents of the state enforcing the school homework policy. This I think, in retrospect, added an unneeded level of anxiety to his life. If we had it to do again, we would have let him fend for himself regarding school, fail classes if that was the path he went down, and always be loving and supportive parents and mentors for him.
So anyway, a dramatic climax came in eighth grade, when our son and all his classmates were administered the State of California STAR math test, by which his school and all other public schools in the state would be evaluated. Faced with a test with a phobic 50 multiple-choice math problems, that had nothing to do with his own personal development, he chose a radical response. Instead of answering the questions, he wrote a short essay expressing his negative feelings about this test on the test form, ending with the short declarative statement “F**k Math!”, and turned that in to the teacher supervising the test.
The school staff I recall was pretty low key about the whole thing, informing us of the incident, but not taking any action beyond that. I guess the conventional wisdom was that it would be our job as parents to take action to remedy the situation, presumably by taking some action to modify our son’s behavior. We were already medicating our son every morning with stimulants (Aderall) to improve his ability to focus on school work. We had already spent money to send him to an educational specialist to help him develop “study skills”. We had already met with some of his teachers and the school psychologist to develop an IEP (see “Individualized Education Plan”) for him and (unsuccessfully) convince the district to pay for his education in a private alternative school. Now all that was left was either to just let him crash and burn or find another school or educational path for him.
We had looked for other schools for our son. There was a small alternative public magnet school that we applied to, but there were lots of applicants and very few spots available in their middle school program, and the students still had to follow the same curriculum of English, social studies, science and the dreaded math, just with more freedom to come up with their own path to master the state-mandated content. Maybe that could have worked for him (I have my doubts) but it was all academic (as it were), because we were never successful in their enrollment lottery to get him a slot. The district schools for “gifted” kids (our son had been so labeled at one point), were highly academic, so seemed like just a bigger train wreck in the making.
We also did some research on alternative private schools, but they did not seem to be alternative enough, given our son’s growing academic phobia (now moving beyond math to the classroom environment in general). Add to that, that the ones worth considering were very expensive, comparable to paying for a college education. With the prospect of years ahead of mostly unpaid internships for my partner Sally towards getting her Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT) license and us just purchasing a new house (so we could move my elderly mom out to live with us) with mortgage payments that would already challenge us financially, an expensive private school was just not in the cards.
So Sally had been doing research about alternative schools and alternatives to school, particularly the practice of homeschooling. The later option was something that had been championed by fundamentalist Christians, but was a gaining adherents in more secular circles as well. It seemed worth a try, so we ended up pulling him out of school right in the middle of his second semester of eighth grade and ending the daily battle to drag him out of bed and make him go to school.