Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Chapter 345 of Unschooling Adventures, In Which I Become An Algebra Teacher and Assign Homework

I've been many things in my mothering career - mentor, guide, coach, and of course The Mom, but I've never been a teacher. Unschooling has allowed me to learn alongside the kids, to help the kids, to be their facilitator, but I've never had to sit down and formally teach them a lesson (a fact for which I've been profoundly grateful). It's been an exciting journey to watch their interests grow and change, to take part in their learning without having to explicitly direct it every step of the way. When I've had the chance to overhear homeschooling parents' discussions of curriculums and enforcements of study time, I've felt mildly exhausted by proxy and thanked my lucky stars that I just get to be a participant in the kids' self-directed learning adventures.

So then what's an unschooling mom to do when her son comes to her and says "Mom, I want to learn Algebra"? You see, most of the mathematics up to this point are learned organically - by doubling a recipe that includes fractions of cups, by counting allowance and figuring out how many months to save up for a special item, by helping dad measure the deck and calculating square footage of lumber. But somehow I doubt that anyone learns how to simplify polynomials organically, and negative exponents don't just fall out of thin air into one's head. In short, Algebra kind of needs to be learned in some sort of structured fashion.

Now I've never been the kind of unschooler who completely runs in horror at the notion of any kind of formal learning. I do believe that there's a time and a place for it, specifically when the kid asks for it. And my kid was asking for it. What's more, our unschooled neighbor kids were also interested in learning Algebra, so all of a sudden I had a class! Since my remembrance of all things Alegbra is sketchy at best, it was off to the library and internet for me, and finding was a real bonus, I can tell you. Alegbra for Dummies isn't a bad resource either, much better than those old textbooks that I learned from.

Coincidentally, I was going through a box of my old papers and discovered the following poem, written by me at age 13 and attached to a bunch of my old algebra homework:

Algebra (A Rime by Robin)

Addition, subtraction and others
Muddle the thoughts in my head.
And then there's fractions (oh brother!)
I wish I could just sleep instead.

This class is a bore for me
And I imagine it's the same for you
And just think of being a teacher!
Listening to this the whole day through

We look forward to the bell
With visions of food in our brains
But the school food is just plain hell
And always gives me stomach pains

So this is the end of my rhyme
I have an assignment to do
I wrote this instead of using a dime
To place a telephone call to you

Clearly, I was not enamored of Algebra at slightly older than Mackenzie's age. And I certainly wasn't begging to learn it. Moreover, I could imagine no worse fate than being an Algebra Teacher, and yet here I am. On the bright side, I could clearly do no worse than my own public school teachers at making Algebra palatable, and as a bonus I serve better lunches than the school cafeteria.

I read this poem to the kids in one of our first lessons and we were off and running. Immediately I saw the need for them to do homework or they would lose the memory of how to do this stuff from week to week. And I also saw the need to review each of the last week's lessons at the beginning of class or it also could flee from the memory cells. I do my best to keep it lively, and with only three of them I can make sure that everyone understands each lesson before we move on. That was probably the biggest disadvantage of my experiences with math in school - sometimes I didn't understand so well what we were doing and why, and no one could take the time to explain it to me.

So far we've worked our way through Factoring and Absolute Values, Exponents and the basics of Polynomials. We've memorized definitions and formulas, and it's been a real learning experience for me to go back over this stuff and realize how very little of it I actually remember! I couldn't for the life of me have told you how to calculate a negative exponent for instance. It's also been a learning experience to see the world of teaching from the other side of the blackboard.

More than that though, it's a confirmation of all that I've believed about unschooling from the start: when a need arises for more formal education, unschooled kids are motivated to pursue it. Mackenzie wants to do more complex computer and robotics programming, for which some knowledge of Algebra is essential. Lately he's also been talking seriously about wanting to go into medicine, and he knows that this will entail a science and math-heavy college load at some point in the future. Keeping in mind that I've always loved pure math, when I re-read that poem of mine I feel sad for a math experience that caused me to turn my face away from the fascinating puzzles of the Algebra world. It's a wonderful opportunity to hopefully give my kids a different kind of approach to math, one that buoys up their natural curiousity about how numbers relate to each other, and respects their own timelines for learning.


Frank said...

Nice one. I can so relate to this.

When our girls were younger, their friends prattled on and on about "long division" and it seemed so mysterious, so complex that our girls wanted to know about it. After about an hour at the kitchen table, they said, "Is that it?"

This year our 15-yr-old took an algebra class at school. After having no math classes for the last zillion years (approximately) she scored 100% for their first grading period and decided to stop going because it was just too boring.

Like you, I love real math but it took me almost a decade post college to regain that love. School poisoned all learning for me. Glad we're not doing that to our kids.

linda said...

Our guy has just finished the algebra I book from The Art of Problem Solving (from ). The books are designed by a mathematician who was so totally disgusted by what he saw in schools that he wrote his own. His love of mathematics is apparent in all the books, which focus on thinking problems though, not on memorizing proofs or dull stuff like that. M might like the challenge, and have fun as well. There are also online classes he can take, and all sorts of good stuff. We're going on to Geometry in the fall.

Tamara said...

Just convinced me never to home school -- passing algebra the first time around 20yrs ago was painful enough. To have to voluntarily re-learn it well enough to teach it to eager young minds....yikes. I can't imagine torture like that. :-)

good for you!