Saturday, February 19, 2011

Old Math, New Math, Red Math, Blue Math

Several years ago I was helping my then seven year old daughter with some complicated addition and subtraction. I've never been a math whiz but I figured I could at least handle addition and subtraction. Was I wrong.

She was struggling with triple digit problems. What to do when you've got more numbers than will fit in the one's column? How do I take 7 from 3? And so on. As I worked her through the first few problems I began to notice she didn't know what to do with the extra digit. I told her that she needed to carry it over to the ten's place. "Carry it?" she asked. "What in the blue-blazes is carrying?" She might not have said blue-blazes but I just want to emphasize that she had no idea what I was talking about. "You haven't been taught how to carry?" I asked. "What about borrowing?" And to that she answered "You mean when you borrow something from your neighbor and then you should give it back?" I could tell we were in for a long night.

I then spent the better part of an hour teaching my daughter the wonderful mysteries of borrowing and carrying. Don't forget to carry the one became my mantra for the night. I wanted to write it on her arm in permanent marker so she wouldn't forget. I repeated myself over and over and by gosh, she was starting to get it. But inside I was a little concerned that the school that she had been attending for the last three years hadn't even taught her how to borrow and carry. I mean come on, I know we are underfunded, but borrowing and carrying are staples of second grade math.

Towards the end of the evening when carry-the-one rolled off her tongue as easy as any Hannah Montana song she remarked to me. "Mom, you know this borrowing and carrying are a lot like regrouping. That is what they taught us in school."

Regrouping. Huh. Turns out the powers that be in the last two and half decades since I attended elementary school decided to change the sayings of borrow and carry to regrouping. You don't carry the one. You regroup. You don't borrow from the 7 to subtract the 3. You regroup. My poor daughter. I had filled her head with the cacophony of don't forget to carry the one! When all she needed was being told to regroup. For those of you out there who are not familiar with regrouping it is exactly the same as borrowing and carrying except they call it what? Regrouping. Now they say don't forget to regroup! It just doesn't have the same panache as don't forget to carry the one.

Boompa (Boompa is my stepdad) is helping my son Aidan out with some math this weekend. As I dropped Aidan off at Boompa's he asked what does he need help with. As I showed him the flashcards I had so painstakingly prepared Boompa asked me if Aidan knew how to carry. "They don't call it that anymore," I answered. "It's now regrouping." You should have seen Boompa's face. "Well, who's gosh-darned idea was that!?" I laughed and told him I didn't know. Everyone born before 1990 is basically screwed when it comes to math now. We don't even know how to regroup!

In other math news, my son Alexander is deep in the throws of pre-algebra. One thing I can say about pre-algebra is that it is exactly the same as when I was in it 23 years ago. I think he may even have the same kind of book I had. One night when he was just about to pull his hair out he had a mini-tantrum. "Why do I care what X equals? Why do things change from positive to negative when they cross the equal sign? And how do you even have negative numbers! Nobody ever told me they had negative five apples! You can only have five apples! Not negative! Why do I even have to learn this!" After I got him calmed down a little we continued to work on it and he asked me how I knew algebra. "Well, Alexander, I took pre-algebra, algebra, and then for fun, algebra 2 in school. Pre-algebra is the easy stuff. Just wait." He was none to happy to learn that there was more algebra in his future. He was then quiet for awhile and then he became inquisitive.

"Mom? Have you honestly ever used this? I mean honestly? Have you ever used algebra in your life?" He asked. So I sat back and thought. Hmmm... did I ever use algebra? Did I use it when I tried to figure out how many diapers I needed to get through the week when I had two kids that weren't potty trained? Did I use it to double chocolate chip cookie recipes? Do I even use to balance the check book? The answer to all of these is no. I had to be honest. "No. I have never used anything in my life close to algebra, Alexander. But being a stay-at-home mom doesn't require a lot of complex math."

This answer infuriated him. "Why do I have to learn it then?!" I answered the only thing I could think of.

"Because. You have to learn it because I learned it. Because your dad learned it. Your grandparents learned it. And because someday when you are a parent and you have a 7th grader you will have to help them with their algebra and you won't be much help if you haven't learned it. That is the whole reason." He couldn't argue with that logic. That night he learned that through out history there is a great chain of learning algebra and then never using it. And that night, he was just another link.