Confessions of a homeschooling geek
People all over British Columbia homeschool their children, but here in the North it seems at times to be a bit of an epidemic. If you don’t homeschool, you might assume that the reason lies in some defect in the northern schools, or in the geography of remoteness, or even in a deeply-rooted religious fanaticism that you never noticed before. But none of these theories really proves out. Somewhat mundanely, in the end it’s just that the same qualities which draw a person to the north also draw him or her to homeschooling: independence, resilience, a kind of indifference to isolation, and a delight in making your own—well—entertainment.
Today is Sunday, which is not normally a day we “do school” in our house. We usually sit down with our kids and practise things four mornings a week: Monday through Thursday. This last Thursday I gave my son Galen some extra work to do over the weekend, and I called it, perhaps unwisely, “homework.”
There are many ways to phrase something so your audience automatically dislikes it, but is there any term that incites a feeling of defiance in children more readily than homework? Really. What was I thinking?
I gave him extra work for—well—two reasons. One is that, for a Grade 6 student, he works through math problems quite slowly during our “school” time. He dawdles; gets distracted by the eraser; thinks about what he’ll do this afternoon; asks me a question about the Battle of Waterloo. If I want him to practise enough to acquire the skill, I have to give him extra work to do later in the day. But I also give homework on Thursday with the intent that it keep the subject matter fresh over the three-day weekend: ideally he does a little Friday and a little Sunday, say. But, of course, he chooses to forget about it until Sunday. Because who wants to do homework, anyway?
So this morning he sits down and looks at the page, and then screams at me defiantly, “I don’t know how to do this!”
The problem looks like this:
3/4 + 3/8 = ?
You, confident math-loving reader, probably recognize this as a problem in equivalent fractions. You have to convert both fractions to eighths, then add. Good! Just to reassure you that I’m a reasonable educator and not a complete tyrant: yes, we did go over how to do this on Thursday. So why is my son screaming at me? Well, it’s preferable to doing the problem. It’s not that he can’t remember, but this whole homework thing is a pain in the ass, and he’s not going to comply, on principle.
To be honest, though, there probably is a bit of not being able to remember. He didn’t practise it on Friday, and chances are he actually can’t remember. To boot, in cleaning up the house Kate has inadvertently moved the math book I left out so Galen can refresh his memory on the procedure.
So I sit down with him, and I begin to run through how to do a problem like this: you have to change the denominators to some common denominator—blah, blah, blah. He interrupts me with a fierce, “Well, I don’t get it!” His tone of voice says, “This is YOUR problem, not mine!”
(This is just one of the variations on this theme. Others include: “Well, I don’t get it!” (meaning, for all your efforts you’re not as good a teacher as you think); “Well, I don’t get it!” (meaning, other kids do but I’m too stupid); or “Well, I don’t get it!” (meaning, you just wasted your time, because it didn’t work.)
I’ve never been able to convince either of my sons that math is their problem. They both treat it as some bizarre religious cult that I dreamed up, and that once they get out of the family they’ll never see it again. Attempts to point out that, for example, the people who came to install carpet on our stairs had to use basic math, and possibly even fractions, are to no avail. The boys don’t believe. So, as a homeschooling dad, I’m a failure. (In math, at least, although not in other subjects. They do great in science, history, geography, etc. But those are interesting.)
So again I go through the procedure with Galen for adding fractions like this, and I have to say I don’t mind doing this. As far as I’m concerned, you have to be exposed to these things over and over again, the teacher explaining something he or she has explained before. That’s fine. The only red flag is Galen’s attitude—not because I require some kind of good attitude towards me as teacher, but simply because you’ll never learn something you hate. You only really remember things that you’re intrigued by.
There’s a context here, however, which is bigger than his difficulties in learning math. Has not some small part of you been squirming in your chair as you read about this little learning conundrum? Have I not just led you into a bit of an uncomfortable place, one where you’re not sure you know how to do the problem, and suddenly you’re back in your Grade 6 math class thinking “I see him writing on the board, but what the hell is he talking about?”
Math is a strange and difficult canyon in the landscape of life. Of course there are plenty of objective reasons why learning math is important—like the fact that balancing what you earn versus what you spend might depend on it—but I notice that as a motivating math teacher I don’t actually cite these reasons very often. To me the delight of math is self-evident (which, I’m aware, immediately makes me weird and probably different from you). In fact, I suspect that, deep down, some little part of me finds my boys’ education to be an excuse for me to draw graphs, multiply by pi, and surround myself in polyhedra.
For most people, math stands in a peculiar corner of the schoolroom. Just as required as spelling, but without the warm feelings of memorizing that friend is F-R-I-E-N-D. Most of us nourish a secret hope that once out of school we won’t do math, and in fact calculators have, in a way, made that come true. Math asks strange questions like, “If Amy and Beth pick two-and-a-half pounds of apples and they divide them evenly, how many pounds do they each get?” Don’t we know that in real life they would just pour the apples out on the ground and divide the pile in half? Who needs math anyway?
If you are like me, the polished faces of the tetrahedron are too beautiful to ignore. The way 24 is composed of 2, 3, and 4 racks your soul like a good stained-glass window. Finding the flaws in the symmetry in the pattern of tiles on the bathroom floor puts a secret smile behind your eyes.
We live among people who like math and those who don’t: geeks and normal people. The division is so fundamental to our experience of society that, during a normal day, we don’t notice it. In our little math class here we’re actually discovering which group Galen’s going to be in. Thank goodness he’s going to be normal!
Illustration by Facundo Gastiazoro.