Thursday, 11 April 2013

Maths for Mums and Dads and More Maths for Mums and Dads by Rob Eastaway and Mike Askew

Maths and I have come to an understanding over the past few years, thanks to quite a few people - but particularly my husband, the authors of this book, and a boy I have the privilege of teaching.

My husband taught me (through the medium of patient understanding, right through the beginnings of getting a bit cross with me, right through to sentences which may or may not have contained the word "pathetic" and the phrase "learned helplessness".)  I had encountered this phrase once before; in my PE report at school. This is all rather apt, given that those two subjects were the ones which brought me out in a cold sweat (or sometimes just a common-or-garden sweat in the case of PE.  Not that often though, as my effort scores would testify).  I was also utterly inept at DT, but luckily the teacher either liked me, felt very sorry for me, or both, and by Year 11 had given up even trying to make me do any practical work, and just made the products for me, based on my designs, which were at least neat and nicely coloured in.  This was a symbiotic relationship which seemed to work well.  It didn't serve me quite so well when, two months before the exam, the DT dept realised that we had to sit a written exam, and I knew absolutely nothing whatsoever about tools, resistant materials or really anything at all pertaining to the world of DT (apart from colouring in.  This was, sadly, not examined.)

Anyway, I digress.  The most important lesson I learnt from these books is never, ever to say to the kids "I'm rubbish at maths".  They have both worked out through the medium of their brains, that I am not very quick at mental calculations.  That's OK - it's accurate, because mental maths is really not a strong suit of my brain (although it is getting better, of which more later).  I point out that some people read more quickly than others; and that doesn't mean that those who read more slowly "can't read" - just that they don't do it quite so quickly as others might, and that the only way to get quicker is to work at it.

I did used to say to others that I am rubbish at maths, and still admit to the kids I teach that I don't find it as easy as I do certain other things.  To be fair, they generally are aware of this themselves, especially if it's a homework lesson and they have brought maths homework.  Then it's a "let's learn together!" type fun activity for all concerned.

However, the bare facts suggest I am not "rubbish at maths".  I got a good grade at GCSE, and was always in the top two sets in secondary school.  I just have a kind of fear of getting things wrong in maths which stops me from ever being sure that I have the right answer.  If I got a spelling wrong in English, or wrote something incorrectly in French, I didn't mind that much, it was OK, in my head I felt that I was still good at it.  If I got something wrong in maths, sitting next to others who never, ever seemed to get anything wrong, and looked at me with pity, I panicked.  My confidence diminished, and I spent maths lessons in a state of fear and tension, which is never a particularly great spur to learning.  My teachers were, on the whole lovely, but, alas, I feared them, because I feared everyone who was good at maths.

The authors of this book set a lot of store in effort, practice and understanding numbers.  They state that these have a lot more to do with confidence in maths than natural ability.  I remember the first time I read the first book, I scoffed a little at this.  Hadn't I done maths at school every day for 12 years?  It didn't seem to help much.  But this time, on re-reading the book, I have come to agree. It's a fantastic book.  The authors are non-patronising, and honest.  They make those of us who hide behind the "can't do it excuse" aware that this is not good enough - not good enough for us, and certainly not good enough for our children.  But they do it alongside useful explanations and fun games to play with your kids.  Both of mine are relatively confident with maths, although C shows worrying signs of that maths "blankness" which I find replaces my brain when someone asks me a maths question.  Anyway, the book helps.  It tells you what is not acceptable, and then helps you to move on from  there.  And I am moving on.

I teach a boy who is very gifted at maths.  His brain "gets" maths.  His calculations are super-speedy and almost always accurate.  He also has that "maths swagger"; even if he makes an error, he sees it as just that, rather than evidence that he can't do it.  Since I have been teaching him, he has become aware of my utter lack of confidence in maths, and has been helping me.  This awareness came about because in his first lesson with me, in Year 10, he brought maths homework with him.  The colour drained from my face, and although I tackled it bravely, he was profoundly aware of the difference in me teaching spelling and sentence construction, and my "help" with his maths (which consisted of reading the question for him and then saying "you're on your own".  His "help" mainly consists of roundly mocking me at every available opportunity.  However, I am expecting these kids to improve in their English.  I am expecting them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and achieve in an area where they have, for many long school years, consistently perceived themselves to have failed.  How can I expect them to do this when I refuse to do the same for myself?  Although it is embarrassing to admit that when I started to teach him I didn't know my 8 times table, I know it now, because I have made myself do the activities in these books, I have made myself do A's maths homework in my head as she is doing it, and I have banned myself from saying "I can't do it", even inside my own head.

A couple of weeks ago the class with maths-boy and I were playing a maths game with differently levelled questions, so that we could all participate at our own level.  It was really enjoyable for all of us.  I only got one question wrong.  And when I got it wrong, I thought "what a silly mistake!" rather than "I am so crap at maths I probably should just give up participating in modern society and go and live in a ditch".  Said maths-genius-boy also got a question wrong.  I simply looked at him and he said "NO!  I'm wrong, don't correct me, I couldn't stand it!"  I will absolutely allow him to be the maths genius in the class, because a) he is and b) people need to feel good at the things they are confident in.  And in my heart, and on leaving day, I will thank him for being the best maths teacher I have ever had.

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