Oscar Fernandez (find him
@EverydayCalc) recently wrote a charming little article about how to talk to your high-school-aged kids about math. Well worth the quick read, if you’re a parent, or might someday be a parent, or happen to interact with other people’s kids. He has some great tips, and provides a lucid description of why it’s so important to do this. Because math can be really fun for kids, and if you, a parent, let your squeamishness for the subject show through, you could sway someone away from enjoying it.
The only thing I’d like to add to Fernandez’s article is a quick note about that question, “What did you learn in school today?”
Which is what my parents asked me while I was growing up, (to which I’d generally mumble “nuthin” before shoving my nose back into a book and ignoring them. If I’d been less of a brat, I should have answered their question more literally, as in, what did I learn while I was in the high school building during school hours. Because, sure, in chemistry class I sat in the back and drew cartoons, in English I sat on top of a desk and chatted with the teacher, in math I sat on the floor and read books, so on most days I didn’t learn anything from the curricula, but I was still learning something most days),
and it’s what I asked members of the local cross country / track teams when I first started volunteering in town (a few of the very outgoing ones gave me reasonable answers that we could chat about, but I heard a lot of “I don’t know,” and “nothing,” and “we’re just reviewing right now”).
So I don’t ask about school that way anymore. A pretty common question I still use is “What was your best class today?”
Sometimes a runner will ask me to clarify, at which point I’ll toss out an “easiest” or “hardest” or “most fun” or “best teacher” addendum, but I’ve had a lot better luck getting real answers to “best class” than “what’d you learn?” And it’s pretty easy to follow up from there — talking to someone whose best class was geometry
(surprisingly common in town because the math teacher is an excellent human. Stopped out of high school when he was growing up, used illicit drugs, saw a few friends die, turned his life around and became a teacher. And it definitely seems like the teachers who realize how terrible school can be are often the most empathetic, which helps them be the best. My hope is that I provide some of that helpful loathing for K; she actually liked high school, primarily because her home life was crumbling so dramatically that school felt like a sanctuary. Whereas the last time I enjoyed public education was in third grade. My teacher was a compassionate, intelligent woman who made special math worksheets for me to do on the bus, especially before field trips, so that I’d get to have fun solving them instead of noticing that no one would sit with me. She later married my senior-year cross country coach, also an excellent human, a vegetarian who cooks up hearty meat stews for an Indianapolis soup kitchen, eccentric enough that he swore off shoes for several years and kept getting kicked out of coffee shops for health code violations, at which point he started boiling the soles off used Pumas and strapping them to his feet with underwear elastic),
I get to ask, “What were you working on in Geometry today?” and from there can chat about shapes, or proofs, or whatever… and, sure, some of those conversations wind up derailing since the participants are out-of-breath, oxygen-deprived me and a not-yet-practiced-with-math-but-sufficiently-in-shape-to-talk-and-think high schooler, but it seems like we usually have fun when we can make sense of each other. Either that, or there are a lot of good actors on the team.
Some other follow-up questions that I can remember coming up with non-math “best class” answers are things like, “Yeah? What’s your Spanish teacher do well?” or “What’d you make in baking?” or “What’re you reading now?” All of which have generally led to talk-about-able answers from even taciturn dudes.
And, yes, even though my daughter is only one year old (as of yesterday, actually), I realize that high schoolers often behave differently with adults who aren’t their parents, but if you’re having trouble talking productively about school you might try switching up your question a little bit.
And in any case, a warm thank you to Fernandez for his article; hopefully enough parents see it that some kids can benefit from his piece.
(See more about my love of math here.)