Talk Mathy to Me

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It is natural for “math” people to engage their children in mathy conversations.  This goes way beyond, “How many jelly beans are there?” That question is just a counting question.  It has a lot to do with arithmetic, but not very much to do with mathematics.  If I had a handful of jellybeans and asked a four year old to count them, that would only be the beginning.  I would probably then say something like, “Which color appears the most?  Which color appears the least?  How many more green jellybeans are there than red jellybeans?  How many (name any color that isn’t there) jellybeans are there? If you ate two, how many would remain?  Imagine the dog gobbles half of the jellybeans.  How many did the dog eat?  For an older kid I might ask, “For which colors are there an even number of jelly beans? What fraction of the jelly beans are green?  If I picked one at random, ate it, and then picked another one at random and ate that one too, what’s the likelihood that both were green?”

Back in November, a friend called me in a panic.  Her child was developing a bad attitude about math and wanted me to help.  I said, “I am a high school math teacher!  How do I know how to help a third grader??!”  She said, “Just Skype with her once a week and talk about math with her like you talk about math with your own kids all the time.”

HUH?  Once again I am the De Facto Math Expert.  But, I agreed to help.  So my friend’s daughter (let’s call her Gracie) and I video chatted (mostly via Skype) weekly for about five months AND my friend listened in so she could carry on the conversation.  I started each chat by asking Gracie what she is doing in school (both math and other subjects), how ballet was, what song she is on in her Suzuki violin book, etc.  Then after about five minutes of that, I launched into math talk, spun out of the first five minutes.  If Gracie had a birthday coming up, we did all sorts of stuff about party planning (adding up expenses and subtracting from the budget) and buying supplies and baking a cake (elapsed time).  If she was reading Percy Jackson and was on page 82, we could mathy talk for a long time about how many pages per night she usually read, how long it would take to finish the book at that rate, etc.  Gracie’s attitude shifted within a few months of regular chat.  After about four months of regular chat, she earned the distinction of being the second student in her class to be 100% fluent on her facts!  And we were not doing drill and kill — we were just having fun with math.  Oh!  And we always had a one-song dance party at the end of each session.

I am a “math” person who can also read and write so there is no excuse for you “English” people.  You can math, and you can learn how to talk mathy with your children.  One of these days, maybe we can post a 20-minute conversation between Gracie and me, or maybe even one of my own kids and me, but until then, here are some tips…

  1. You can do it.  Start small.  Go to the free resource Bedtime Math (started by a physicist for her children) for some ideas.
  2. Notice math all around you.  Math is not about arithmetic.  Well it is, but that is such a small portion of mathematics.  Math is really about patterns, predictions, symmetry, relationships, estimation, rigor, generalities and exceptions.  Take a muffin tin, for example.  Have you ever thought about how much math is going on there?  A 3 x 4 array.  12 cups.  When you make muffins, ask your child to put paper liners in half of the cups. Or maybe a fourth of the cups for an older kid.
  3. Ask open ended questions.  Name three numbers that are between 35 and 40.  Name three numbers that are less than 12.  Give me two numbers that are between 5 and 6.  Tell me three different ways to multiply two numbers to get 24.  I did a subtraction problem and got the answer 17; what two three digit numbers did I subtract?
  4. Have your kids ask you a math question and see if you can get it right.  Let them use a calculator to check! They love that!
  5. Encourage them to figure stuff out, not just learn “the way” to do it.  Give them the time and space to do it.  Buy those fun erasable pens. Or, get a white board and dry erase markers.  When they get tired of adding up eight 7s, they will learn that multiplication fact.  But until then, be patient.

This pic just popped up on my social media memories…

Kid:  My pyramid is complete!

Me:  You made a triangle number!

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Talk Mathy to Your Kid(s)!

Post your ideas / successes in the comment section!