• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Relearning Algebra with The Boy

Joy in teaching and learning.


November 13, 2014

The Boy is thirteen, and in the eighth grade. He’s taking algebra, which is to say, we’re taking algebra.

Relearning algebra at age forty-six is a very different experience. It’s not as intimidating as it was the first time around, if only because I remember getting past it before, and some of the logic seemed to stick. “Isolate the variable” is a life lesson masquerading as a mathematical technique. I need some prompts as reminders, but so far they haven’t been too bad. The notation is slightly odd -- why is the slope of a line abbreviated as “m”? -- but once I know that, it’s fine.

The first time around wasn’t like that. I remember lots of daydreaming in class, which made it difficult to keep up with demonstrations on the chalkboard. (It was even harder to catch up once I had missed a couple of steps.)  I didn’t see the relevance of any of it, and the logic behind it was often elusive.

The Boy reports that many of the same things are true for him, now. 

I can’t blame him, really. Depending on how it’s taught, algebra can either be a really nifty bit of puzzle solving or a mystifying group of complicated processes with no obvious connection to each other. And I”m sure that if I had to sit through an hour of it every morning, early, with a teenager’s body clock, I’d daydream, too. 

As the parent, I see it as my job to help TB move from “this is a random set of rules to memorize” to “here’s how it fits together.” Once you have some sense of the connective tissue, it’s easier to reconstruct a rule that you’ve forgotten.

This week he had a big test, and some reason to be nervous about it, so we spent a couple of hours studying together.

The first thing I insisted on was turning off the computer.  I brought up several sheets of blank typing paper -- for younger readers, “typing” is the old-school version of printing -- and a pen.  I wanted us to have enough room to write nice and big.  I wanted to see each step as he did it, and I wanted him to see each step as I did it.  That means having plenty of white space.

There is no substitute for speaking math out loud, slowly, as you do it.  It’s not fast or pretty, but it forces a kind of clarity.

This is where generational parenting styles really show themselves.  We Gen X types were raised in what would now be called a “free-range” style, which meant that when it came to things like homework, we were on our own.  That could be very good or very bad.  The rules have changed since then; now, difficult homework is a group activity.  The key is in making sure that you’re clear on the difference between helping him understand, which is good, and doing it for him, which is not. 

The joy of helping with algebra homework is twofold.  It’s fun to devise word problems designed to make each other laugh.  And I still get a kick out of watching the lightbulb turn on when he gets it. 

If you had told me at age thirteen that I’d bond with my future son while helping him study for an algebra test, I would have laughed out loud.  Yet here we are.  If x equals spending time making The Boy laugh and helping him learn, then I’m happy to solve for it. 


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