Saturday, February 17, 2007

True bliss: space stations and number lines - adventures with Menticia.

If you've been around Pratie Place for a while you know I've been mentoring a very entertaining chica for 2-1/2 years now. I decided to do this partly for noble reasons but mostly because I wanted some young energy in my life.

Now she's in sixth grade and it's been fun, for instance, watching the hormones hit her. For instance, boys have gone from being invisible - perhaps briefly of note when they provided entertainment with their wild pranks - to being a constant reference point (always accompanied, however, with one of these provisos: "I'm not interested of course but..." or "I like him, no, just kidding").

Three weeks ago I got her mid-semester progress report and was surprised to see a big fat F in Social Studies. She told me she had "forgotten" to turn in a paper punctually - and had also "forgotten" to turn it in during the 1-week grace period. "It's been in my binder all this time."

When questioned, she provided further information: "Well, it was almost finished, but I didn't have glue at home so I couldn't paste in the pictures." "It was all finished except for some glue? You could have taken it to the teacher and said, 'I need some glue,' and then pasted in the pictures and handed it in." "Well, I had to write a few words after I pasted in the pictures." "A few words? Maybe you could have left space for the pictures and written the words and THEN asked for the glue?"

Menticia is linear in her thinking sometimes. She gets to a hurdle and stops, rather than looking for a way around it. ("What can I do? I have no glue, the rest of this will obviously have to wait!")

I gave her some glue to take home and wrote in her assignment book: "Glue in the pictures, turn in the paper, apologize to the teacher."

Seven days later I picked her up again. The paper was still not handed in. So I decided we would finish it together. To my horror, the "few words" she needed to write comprised about 2/3 of the report. Four hours later the project was done. "Are there any other assignments that are about to become train wrecks?" I asked.

Yes: there was a Space Station, part of a team project - they were, uh, a little bit behind - it was due in two days, and since team members 1 and 2 had already done their part - concluding with an approved design for said space station - it was now Menticia's turn, in conjunction with team member 4, to actually do the building.

"What's done so far?" "Well, my dad gave me a piece of plywood to build the space station on." "Is that ALL? There's just a piece of plywood??" "I also took in some green tissue paper for grass."

Setting aside the obvious question ("Why do you need grass in a space station?") I pointed out that there was, in effect, no space station at all. "Well, it's not just my fault - the other kid was supposed to bring legos to make buildings."

OK, a crisis. Involving corrugated cardboard, paper towel tubes, glue gun, clever design solutions... I was in heaven! My own kids Hannah and Zed will know how happy this made me. I sent Menticia home that day with a most excellent space-station dome and a detailed plan.

That was the crisis du jour last week. This week: addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division of positive and negative integers, along with "simplifying expressions." We started yesterday. Menticia was completely at sea. I was frightened to discover how little she understood, and how randomly she intended to answer the worksheet questions. When things get really tough for her, she regards a worksheet as somewhat akin to a bingo board - write down random numbers and see if you get lucky and hit the jackpot.

Have you ever noticed it's easier to teach something you once struggled with than something that came easily to you? When I was a kid, I loved math. Everything always turned out right and since I understood the material I didn't have to study or spend any time at it. So I sometimes have a hard time figuring out what it is that Menticia isn't understanding.

I have to slow down and look at math problems through her eyes - not fun and easy, with certain victory to be won at little cost, but treacherous! Liable to result in homework covered with dreadful red Xs of condemnation!

I have to bite my tongue to keep from being an obnoxious dweeb chortling: "Look at that! Isn't it cool?"

The time available yesterday made a sizeable dent in her incomprehension, but we finished only half the work. I said, "we can work on this some more tomorrow if it looks hard after you go home."

I didn't expect to hear from her - she never calls me - so I was delighted beyond words when I heard her sweet little voice on the phone today - it's the very first time she's ever actually managed to ask for help.

I suggested we work in the pizza joint near her house. I brought wads of scratch paper (I hate little squinched up globs of numbers), sharp pencils, and - most crucial of all - my wonderful gigantic eraser. We spread her work all over the table. I drew number lines and matrices; she patiently answered my questions while she ate pizza to gain focus.

In deference to her rather somber attitude towards math I tried not to sound too gleeful, but I was in hog heaven. We drank an awful lot of soda while we worked (I'll never stop thinking we in the South get away with something with these free refills).

I loved helping and explaining, cracking jokes to break down her resistance. Listening to her voice pick up strength and confidence as we laboriously worked our way down the page brought me near ecstasy! And it's been WAY too long since I got to draw number lines!

Something Menticia never cares for: any sort of "What did we learn today?" meta-analysis. "Why was this part hard, and that part easy?" "What will you try first, next time you see a problem like this?" "The minus sign in front of a negative number might seem small and insignificant, but there will be red marks on your math assignments if you don't take it extremely seriously!" When we've made our way from the top left to the bottom right, she's more than ready to forget the whole thing and move on.

I don't blame her. I hope, though, that by osmosis she'll pick up some of my cheerful confidence that the right answer is there to be discovered - an enjoyment of laying out problems in a clear, tidy, rational space (using lots of fresh scratch paper) - even, hopefully, some elation when everything comes together.

"Menticia, I want to buy you a treat now because you've worked so hard." "Oh, no, that's ok."

So ended another wonderful session. Are you, too, longing for construction paper and glue, "boys," number lines, bowling, and discussing the relative merits of several ghastly radio stations? Be a mentor!

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At 5:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Melinama--You would have made a great teacher!!! I love my job and cannot imagine being anything but a teacher. I always get mad when I hear that old saying. ''Those who can do; those who can't teach.'' I always feel that more acurately ''Those who can and who can explain how to so that others can, too..teach.'' My daughter teaches 7th grade language arts and ancient history, and she always has great stories about her students. She has always been very laidback [''no worries, Mom''] and not as organized as her mathematican sister, so I get a big chuckle when she rants about how disorganized 7th graders are. As for your love of math, my older daughter was a double major in college [math and computer science] and ended up Valedictorian. She LOVES math [she did not get that quality from my end of the gene pool]. She actually used to ''save'' some of her math problems instead of doing them all at once. [She hates when I tell that story. ]Congratulations on being a many kids need someone to help and guide them.~~~Susanlynn, loving to teach but not loving the math

At 10:39 AM, Blogger Hannah said...

I miss papier-mache projects!


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