How to Help Diffuse Math Homework Angst

I recently spent way too much time on Facebook talking parents off the math homework ledge.  I'm sure you've see these posts from time to time - the ones where they post a picture of a math problem and ask, "Can you believe what they want my kid to do?"
How do you handle math homework difficulties?

Our scene opens with Johnny at the kitchen table.  It plays out something like this:

Johnny: Can you help me with this math? I don't get it.

Parent takes 3 or 4 or 12 deep breaths, looks at the problem, tries to sound calm but remembers their own math challenges as a kid. 

Parent: I don't know.  This isn't the way I learned math.  I can't believe they're asking you to do this! It's ridiculous. 

Johnny starts crying and Parent vows to call the school in the morning, complaining about these impossible problems.  Scene fades...

Here's why I give math homework...

What to do when they just don't get it.
Math homework is a way for the teacher to see what Johnny can do independently, as he practices a math concept. 
I've always let parents know that the math homework I send home is to either finish something we've done in class, or as practice to see who is independent with that skill or concept.

I assure students and parents that this homework should take no more than 20 minutes of their time - if they understand it.

Challenge: "I don't get it."
But what if Johnny is stumped? I want to know where he is getting stuck, beyond, "I don't get it." Students tend to throw out the entire problem, not thinking about what they do understand.

I'm not denying he's stuck, but this holds him accountable for thinking about the problem and analyzing where he's getting lost in the process. Being able to to verbalize what he knows, or thinks he knows, lets me figure out how to help him. This also builds self-confidence in his problem-solving abilities.

Clearing up some parent misconceptions... 

"Why don't they have a math book?"
Frankly, I've always preferred to not have one. The reason being, textbooks walk kids through every step of the problem, cutting out any trial-and-error discovery, and (generally) only showing one way to get a solution, when in actuality, there might be several approaches to a single solution.

Back in the day... (see how I refrained from saying "the olden days?") we were taught do this step first, then that step next, and maybe one more step, until, voilĂ , you get your answer - and that's how the math magic happens. However, that "magic" is strictly algorithm-based.

Students need a lot of hands-on opportunities to develop a concrete understanding of what the manipulation of those numbers actually means. There needs to be time to let students explore and make connections to what they've already learned. It's the first step in learning a new math concept. To add to the problem, textbooks frequently skip that step, jumping straight into the algorithm.

"Whatever happened to the worksheets with story problems and timed tests?"
Rest assured, there are still problems to solve. The format looks a little different from story problems of old.  Back in the day... (well, there I go again!) kids would have a worksheet of, for example, addition facts, followed by a page of story problems where they had to add, or occasionally subtract something to find the answer. The problems generally stayed true to the current math skill.

Now, "story problems" look more like problems adults might solve everyday, using the tools (addition, subtraction, multiplication and division) in their math toolboxes. For example, you're planting a garden with a 10'x14' space. How much topsoil will you need? How much fencing do you need to surround the garden, if there is a 4' gate on one end. Fencing is $4.50 per foot and the gate is $12.95, but on sale at 30% off.

I would consider this one problem with a central theme, something kids should be able to break apart to solve. Just look at all the different types of math that are included: area, perimeter, multiplication, subtraction, addition, and finding percentages.

Which brings me to timed tests...
The purpose of timed tests is to show students how quickly they can recall math facts. It's handy when they're solving multi-step problems like the one above, if they can quickly recall those facts as needed. However, I believe math games are a better way to practice math facts than timed tests.  Games give students a purpose for using their facts. The more they use them, the quicker they become.

I tell my students, if they don't have quick recall of math facts, it slows them down. It's like needing a crutch when you have a sprain or a broken leg. The crutch helps you get around better, but ultimately, it slows you down. So please, use your crutch (a table, fingers, calculator) until you don't need it anymore. It takes a lot of pressure off of them and clears the way so we can get down to the business of problem solving.

"How can we help our kids with their math homework when we don't understand it ourselves?"
I suggest one of the reasons parents struggle helping their kids with math homework is because they did not get a chance to develop a concrete understanding of what those algorithms meant, when they learned it. This was and is especially true for spatial learners.  We are expecting kids to be able to explain what they're doing and why, thus creating a disconnect, when parents can't help.

Have you ever heard parents lament, "I was never good at math?"  It doesn't help their child to reinforce their uncertainty or fear of math. In fact, just the opposite happens. It gives kids permission to "not be good at math" because their parents weren't.

Just PLEASE don't ever let them know you'd rather have a root canal than figure out this homework with them. Instead, check out a possible solution  to your dilemma, below.

Instead of commiserating over the futility of math homework, try this:

Sit down with your child, and ask questions such as, "What do we know about this problem that might help us solve it?"  Work along side him, talking about what might and might not work.

If he still doesn't understand, help him verbalize what he does understand and where he's getting stuck. Have him write that down to turn in. It's much more useful feedback for the teacher than a note from mom or dad saying, "We don't understand the homework." Before long, he'll be teaching you new math tricks.

Above all, please remember, these are our future engineers, scientists, architects, pilots, doctors, computer programers, builders, musicians and artists.  They are going to know and be able to do so much more than our generation, and will learn it much more quickly than we can, if they don't have the parent filter in their heads saying, "this is too hard."

Good luck! Be sure to check out some of my math games on the right, designed to give that all-important math practice! I leave you with one of my favorite quotes.

"Do not worry about your difficulties in Mathematics. I can assure you, mine are still greater." Albert Einstein

Secondary Smorgasbord: Creating a Positive Classroom Culture

The first bell rings, signaling the start of a new school year.  For the next nine months, our classroom will be my students' home away from home. Creating a positive classroom culture shows them that this is a safe place to learn and grow.  Here's how I do it...

Creating a Positive Classroom Culture
After their "free-range seats" are chosen, we begin with a lot of exploration - of the classroom, of each other, of ourselves.  Each year, I give each student a journal for their warmups. The first few pages become a reflection of themselves as learners, along with a plan for what they'd like to accomplish this year. To get an idea about how they see themselves, I jump right in with these questions.

Take a moment to respond in your journals:  
  • What do you want me to know about you, as a learner? 
  • What do you consider to be your greatest talent or trait?
  • Who, in this classroom, do you consider to be friend?
  • Who, in this classroom, would you like to get to know better?
Creating a Positive Classroom Culture: Change your thought... Change your day!
Students come with preconceived notions about what they can and cannot do.  Negative self-talk frequently gets in the way of their learning, and we need to turn that around quickly. (For example, "I've never been good in math." Ugh!)  

To make the point, we take a stroll down memory lane. I ask them to think back to when they were babies. (OK, I know it would be highly unusual for them to remember their own first few months, but they've heard their parents' stories about when they were babies, and those stories become theirs. Anyway, I digress...) 

Remember when everything was new and you had to learn how to do the simple tasks you now take for granted? You learned to talk, to get food into your mouth successfully, and to walk. No one could do it for you and you never gave up until you were successful.

Well, guess what?  That's what you're still doing!

Every new thing you learn is another first step.  Will it be easy? Maybe, maybe not.  Will you stumble? It's possible. Will you get back up and try again until you get it?  I know you will! I promise you, I will be there to guide you. And more importantly, I will not deny your right to struggle, just like when you took your first steps, because that's how you learn.

Creating a Positive Classroom Culture: I will not deny your right to struggle.
And then, it's back to the journals for more reflection:
  • What is something you're trying to learn to do? (It can be in school, or outside of school.)
  • What's something that took you a long time to learn, but now it's easy to do?
  • What is the best way for you to learn something new?
  • What do you do when something seems really hard to figure out?

Creating a Positive Classroom Culture: Change your thought, change your day!

I'll spend a lot of time those first few days finding ways for them to see that they know more than they thought they did, in a number of different learning situations. There will be lots of different games involved, where I'm assessing different areas and it's safe to make mistakes. Here's an example...

Since math seems to be the most popular I've-never-been-good-at subject, I start with a fun place value game, Hi-Lo, that has students building 5-digit numbers, one digit at a time. It's non-threatening and it gives me some quick information about their understanding of place value, their ability to read large numbers, as well as their problem-solving strategies.  It also lets me see who relies on a lot of teacher support, as well as who does better with verbal or visual directions. I pack a lot into this little game.
Creating a Positive Classroom Culture: Using games helps break down learning barriers.

I always play along with them and let them see my moves.  I tell them they're always welcome to copy my answers, but just know, I lose more rounds than I win. They see that I'm willing to take a chance that may or may not work out. This also gives me the opportunity to model losing gracefully, knowing it's not the end of the world and I might try something different next round.

They really enjoy this game because they realize that, YES!, they can do math! ...and the barrier starts to crumble.

At the end of the first couple of days, it's time to set some goals, and rethink their negative self-talk.  We brainstorm possible sentence starters to replace "I can't." We talk about how doing things differently than they did before is how to get different results.

Thinking about last year (what you did well, what you need to improve)... 
  • What do you want to really focus on improving this year?
  • What will you do differently to make that improvement happen?
  • What "I can't" thoughts will you change to "I can" statements?
Creating a positive classroom culture is a yearlong process.  Will there be bickering? Probably. Will they struggle? Undoubtedly. Will we have fun? Absolutely! It's all part of taking those first new steps.   And guess what...

Creating a Positive Classroom Culture: Changing "I can't" into an "I can do it!" positive learning attitude.