I was once asked to tutor a ten year-old who didn’t want any help.  (This has happened lots of times; I say “once” because this story is about one particular child.)  He was a relatively good sport about it, because he’s a relatively compliant kid.  He was not about to refuse to meet with me, and he was not about to be rude to me.  But it’s hard for anyone in a situation like his to go without an outlet for resistance.  So this is what he’d do.  When it came time to write anything down on a homework assignment he’d write with one hand but not steady the paper with the other.  The result was nearly illegible numbers and symbols.  Just generally a big mess.

I’ve seen enough children doing this to discern with some accuracy when it’s the result of a lack of understanding of the physics involved in the act of writing (which it really sometimes is) and when it’s a communication.  This was a communication.

I could have told him to hold the paper still, and he probably would have obliged (being relatively compliant). But then he would have found some other way to let me know he wasn’t happy with the circumstances.  Instead I asked him if sometimes he holds the paper still when he’s writing on it.  He didn’t respond right away.  “What d’you mean?” he said (with what sounded to me like caution).  I said, “I mean, I’m pretty sure you know that when you’re writing, and you hang on to the paper with your other hand or steady it with your wrist, what you write will be easier to read.  So it seems like maybe you don’t feel like it right now, or something.”

He didn’t say much then, and we moved on. But the next time it happened, when he realized he was doing it, he looked up at me and I raised a dramatic eyebrow.  He covered his eyes for a moment, scrunching up his face, and laughed. It became a bit of a running joke between us.

My approach didn’t change the fact that this child didn’t really want to be there with me working on math, but it set a tone that allowed us to talk about it, person-to-person.  And that meant we could also talk about the various challenges and resistances that led his teachers and parents to send him to me in the first place.

This is one of those things that can seem simple but not actually be easy.  It’s often not easy to figure out how to acknowledge out loud that a child’s will is involved in a behavior, with curiosity about the behavior and without immediately attributing the expression of that will to laziness or obstinacy. But it’s possible.  And it’s worth it.  When we find ways to access and express genuine curiosity about why kids are doing what they’re doing, we make room for a human connection that transcends the common adult/child dynamic – the one in which an adult gives a directive of one kind or another and the child is limited to a choice between compliance and defiance. Breaking the cycle of that dynamic tends to allow for much more productive and peaceful conversations.

And it’s also just plain more fun and less exhausting for everyone.

Mathless world

I had a little deck of fraction cards sitting on the table when one of my young writing friends was visiting last week.

“What are those?” he asked.

“Fraction cards for a math game,” I said.  “Do you like math?”

He shrugged.  “I don’t know. I don’t really get it.”

What he meant, actually, was that he doesn’t really know what the word refers to.  He’s at ease in conversation about money, cost, discount, tax, about measurement, rate, distance, speed, about logic, pattern, or other relationship.  It’s just not called math at his house. It only exists in the context of life, not as a separate entity.

Soon he’ll know what we mean when we talk about math, and that he’s been doing it all along without knowing it; he’ll realize there’s not actually anything he doesn’t get.

But I couldn’t help imagining a world without the word.  A world in which math isn’t a thing; just part of myriad other processes we go peaceably about in the course of our days.  The kind that some of us do for fun, the kind that’s just for the sake of itself (distinct from the daily use kind), could have some other name – number play, maybe. Anything that gives it some distance and breathing room from the word that’s come to strike such fear and confusion in the hearts of so many  What a world that would be.

For Math’s Sake…

I consistently find that it’s easier to generate excitement for math when it’s called something else.  (A game, for example, even when it shamelessly involves multiplication, is drastically better received when it’s called a game than when it’s called math.)  I’m beginning to think that it would be wise if we retired the word math for awhile.  It’s come to embody, represent, and inspire such dread, fear, loathing, and hostility (often compounding over the course of generations) that I think it deserves a break.  And many of us deserve a break from it.

This is not at all to say that we should stop doing the things we’ve come to refer to as math.  Just that we could stop using the word.  For now.  Not only does it inspire the less-than-healthy and productive states I mentioned above, our general understanding of what it actually is has been whittled down to something that could only appeal to a very few humans who happen to function in a particular way.  Math, defined broadly, is the kind of stuff anyone could find a home in; not just those who happen to have a proclivity for memorizing columns of numbers, or substituting letters for numbers in some prescribed manner.   There is room in the math I know for artists, builders, designers, extraverts, poets, chefs.  And room for it in all of their various pursuits.  When treated well and generously conceived, math has the ability to invite, inspire, and intrigue.

The earliest mathematicians were a varied lot.  To them math was a playful, welcoming thing.  They’d have been sorry, I’m sure, to hear it spoken of today as it is.  So perhaps we should shelve the word, breathe some life back into the observation, rendering, and capturing of pattern, relationship, quantity, and then invite it back to the party when we can treat it as the spacious entity we deserve to have it be.