F**k Math

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.

8 replies on “F**k Math”

  1. Hi Cooper

    I recently retired after teaching High School for 40 years in the Hart District in California. Because of FEAR or FAILURE some students become Math-phobic — the mental processes are there and adequate but the” ITS MATH I CAN’T DO THAT” emotion wipes out the thinking screen.

    I really believe a cap of 500 students should be on every school. It gives a level of contact and interaction larger schools can’t give and the ability for students to progress at their own best rate. My 15 years at Bowman Continuation High School drove home that point every day. Great Blog, keep it up.

  2. Richard… thanks for those thoughts from someone in the trenches for so long… 40 years wow! I agree with you that the size of the school is really important, though I might be inclined to cap it at a lower number than you. From my experience, an institution works best when everybody knows everyone else and also when there are real decision makers there on site rather than pulling the strings from some far off bureaucracy.

  3. Vaguely in the haze of my horror of math, I did see that solving for X was a beautiful and symmetrical thing. Beyond that, however, the beauty of words won over the beauty of what Galileo said was God’s way of explaining the universe. Required to go through college algebra in my undergrad program, every time the professor (who was in his 70s) would introduce a new concept, I would use the title to create a new poem. I wrote a lot of poetry that semester. One day, the professor was giving us a tour down memory lane as he told us about how his red-haired college sweetheart had actually helped him pass college algebra. He ended class with these rather heartfelt words: “I sure wish more of you girls had red hair.” That was a Friday. On Monday, he walked into an auditorium full of red-haired women. 90% of us had colored our hair red over the weekend. He was delighted. We all adored him, and we all passed his algebra class!

  4. Thanks. I always like hearing about the different paths that lead people into homeschooling. I’m particularly interested in how, no matter whether they always wanted to homeschool or if they turn to homeschooling as a last resort (“accidental homeschoolers”), homeschoolers then all go thru more transformational processes. I’d like to study and write a book about it one day.

  5. John… thanks for your comment. Our kids’ mom and I were definitely accidental homeschoolers, trying it as a last resort. Don’t know if you have read some of my other pieces about how, since that experience with our son Eric, we have become strong advocates for “on purpose” homeschooling, particularly the unschooling variety. Though his mom and I have done a lot of reading and research about educational options, including unschooling, it was our son Eric’s insistence on managing his own development, even outside of school that pushed us to embrace the unschooling concept. He was determined to embrace it.

    Not sure if you have read any of my other pieces. IMO that transformational process you are eluding to is part of a larger societal transformation from hierarchies of control to egalitarian circles of equals. In traditional “us and them” thinking, young people are the last class of people still accepted by most people as chattel.

    I’m also curious how you came upon this piece, which I wrote several years ago.

    Please keep in touch.

  6. I stumbled upon your blog today when I read comments on an edweek.org article about “preparing students for the real world” by Peter DeWitt. I became further intrigued when I saw, like me, you are a native Michiganian and started homeschooling when your son was in middle school. When it became steadily apparent to me that no school is allowed to teach beyond the “one size fits all” model, I began researching different educational options for my two kids and concluded that homeschooling was the only option that made sense for us. We are currently in our second year.

    My oldest was tested in Kindergarten to read at a 3rd grade level, yet every year when I asked how to challenge him, to my dismay, the teachers suggested he read more and/or do a book report (he is a voracious reader, and I felt a book report was just extra busywork). Finally, he took an IQ test in 3rd grade, skipped up to 4th halfway through the school year, then in 6th grade went on to a rigorous one-year-only elite environmental school who used Chicago Math. Despite all that, he still hated school, and his math and writing skills just plain sucked (although he always passed the standardized tests with flying colors).

    My youngest tested well enough at the age of 4 to attend Kindergarten (his birthday falls the day before the cut-off) instead of “Young 5s”, and had no problem keeping up with the subjects. However, math also became a struggle despite tests stating otherwise. The school changed their math program from Saxon Math to Think Math when my youngest was in Kindergarten, and I found it ridiculous when my first grader would bring home obtuse math worksheets that even I, as a fairly intelligent and educated parent, struggled to understand what was expected. I hate to think how students with uninvolved parents and especially below average students coped with this new math.

    So, yeah, I’m with your son: “F**k Math”

  7. grjane… Thanks for your comment and sharing your son’s story!

    I really like where Peter DeWitt is going with his own evolution on the nature of school. He still believes in the concept of school, but based on his instincts I think he sees that the “emperor has no clothes” and that standardizing school just does not work for a lot of our youth. It will be interesting to see where he is at in say 5 years.

    I was born in Ann Arbor MI in 1955 and lived there until 1978 when I moved to Los Angeles where I have lived ever since. My partner Sally and I met working in the feminist movement, married in 1983, and our first kid, Eric was born in 1986. His sister Emma was born in 1989. I have written a great deal about their development, most of which was done outside of school. Don’t know if you’ve read my piece about their “unschooling” experience during their teen years when other kids went to high school and college… http://www.leftyparent.com/blog/my-kids-unschooling-sagas/

    Interesting you say your oldest’s math and reading skills sucked tho he did well on the standardized tests. I’d be interested in hearing more about the gap there.

    And I’d also be interested how your youngest did with math, as it was taught in his schools.

    Our daughter Emma really hit a wall in 9th grade, her last year in school, with geometry. I was always good in math so I tutored her all year and helped her get a “C” in the class, but probably did more to decrease rather than increase her math knowledge. It was a sobering experience and I wrote about it in this piece… http://www.leftyparent.com/blog/2009/01/13/tutoring-geometry/.

    Anyway… would love to continue the dialog if you are interested.

    Cooper Zale

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