Sunday, August 18, 2013

Consider This when a Child Says: "I Don't Like Math"

Photo courtesy of Mauro Barsi
     Think about when you were first learning mathematics as a child. Arithmetic. Did you like it? Many children do not.
     Odds are it’s because they can’t figure out its purpose, function, or application. More importantly,  unless they are in the hands of an enlightened teacher who takes the time to provide context, they are never really told how all the parts fit together, and that math is progressive: arithmetic, algebra, geometry plane and coordinate, trigonometry, the calculus…
     When I work with children who claim they don’t like math, I help them break things down by using the metaphor of the ocean.
     I start with a simple question, “What is the ocean?”
     Most often, children reply that it’s a large body of salt water. Some are more detailed by mentioning the large expanse, or the waves; the creatures that inhabit the waters, or sandy beaches.
     That’s where we start. We then talk about the ocean as an ecosystem.  Children generally understand questions about habitats and are able to discuss the interrelationships between various animal and plant communities. Older children can participate in discussions of the chemistry of salt water or the physics of compression or deep water vents with their unusual communities of anaerobic bacteria.
     The next step is to help these these children see how mathematics is like the marine ecosystem, which involves a series of interrelated bodies intertwined in such a way that they are all necessary to each other in order to support the entire structure that is the ocean.
     From there, conversations about the mathematical underpinnings of nature (the Fibonacci sequence, for example), of music (rhythm, chording), of architecture, of automotive engineering, of the digital world of computing are all logical outcroppings.
     I have seen children who don’t like math learn to embrace it as the tool that it is: a pathway toward understanding the complex world around us, a key to unlock secrets of otherwise elusive concepts.
     Once children have the opportunity to explore the reasons for studying mathematics, sometimes a fire can ignite within them that is stupendous to behold.
     It’s a lifelong gift to help a child realize that mathematics does not exist on a shelf by itself, but rather forms the basis for our understanding of diverse fields of human endeavors.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Preparing Your Gifted Child for a New School Year

Photo courtesy of Mauro Barsi

     I know. It's still summer. But if you look carefully, you'll notice that the shadows are a little longer, the days not so long. In short, autumn is on its way. Your gifted child may not be talking about the fact that if autumn is coming, so is school, but s/he is aware of it in every body cell.
     For some children, this brings a frisson of excitement: they love the challenge, the thrill of approaching new subjects and new ways of thinking, the possibilities that a new school year represents.
     For others, they are dreading Labor Day the way many moms dread making school lunches, another project looming on the horizon.
     Why would a bright child dread the start of a new school year? Because for some sensitive children, the love of learning new things is overshadowed by the dread of meeting new kids, facing the social changes in the school environment (especially if there is a change of schools involved, such as the transition from elementary to middle school, or middle to upper).
     You know how your child responds to change, or the mere suggestion that change may be coming. You are your child's best ally in easing this transition. Younger children will appreciate a frank discussion that might give words to their unstated and unacknowledged uncomfortable feelings related to going back to school. You can help them understand that life resembles the photo above in that the path is clear where you are standing on it, but you cannot always tell what is around the bend. You have to have faith that the path itself will be as smooth and comfortable as it is right where you are standing right now, and that when you round the next bend, you will be prepared and comfortable with the path that you once could not see.
     Some children who are a little older may resist your efforts to bring up this topic because for them it is now drenched in the sudden flow of hormonal changes that have caught them completely unaware: all the parent talk in the world is inadequate to help a pre-teen know what it will feel like when these hormones actually begin to surge. You might get resistance. You might even get some rude behavior in the form of slammed doors, rolled eyes, and whatevers.
     It is still worth it to bring this up for discussion, even though you may feel is is more of a monologue than an actual conversation with older kids. They will hear you, whether they acknowledge it or ignore you in the moment.
     Your words may come back to them just when then need them most: when they're standing in the hall of a new school surrounded by new kids with a new academic program and they can't even seem to find their own lockers.
     Mama said there'd be days like this, goes an old song by the Shirelles from the 1960s.
     I believe it is better that your child can at least recall that you tried, than to face fears with no warning, and therefore no armor whatsoever.
     Just be prepared for those rolling eyes. Have you met many pre-teens who want to admit to listening to a parent's advice?
     It's still worth the try. You are planting seeds of comfort, though you may not be present in the moment when those seeds germinate and take root.