Doing the math - FamilyEducation

Doing the math

October 16,2009
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

L.'s Fall Break ended last week and we're now a whole week into the second quarter of L.'s fourth grade year. I like to stand back and survey the big picture from time to time, and the start of a new quarter seems the perfect time to do that--coming on the heel of a good two-week break for L., and that brown envelope that came home--the one with the report card, and goal sheets; the one that always seems to reduce my child to black and white numbers on a page. When L. finished up last quarter and brought his report card home, we sat down and looked at it together--well, Scott and I sat down and L. paced around the room. "You brought your math up!" was the first thing I said--and he had. "Really?" He was surprised, and a tad unimpressed at first, but then he felt proud and stopped pacing, and we talked about why he thought this had happened, especially given the amount of foot-dragging and drama that go on where L. and math are concerned. He didn't attribute the improvement to anything in particular; only that perhaps this is a "good" year and that next year will be a "bad" one because, as he observed, his school years have a pattern: one good year followed by a bad year, followed by a good year, etc. Last year was, of course, a Very Bad Year. I wish I could get L. to embrace the big picture, but this is always so difficult. He exists in a world of details, unable to see the forest for the intricate and beautiful bark on each tree, all whorls and overlapping edges. But I've thought about the big picture, and the details that are the important ones--simple details that on the surface might have nothing to do with long division and perimeters, like the fact that L.'s class is reading this book in fourth grade instead of the book his third grade class read (yes, give a book about a young girl who dies of leukemia to a child on the spectrum who also suffers from acute anxiety. Nice). Details like the fact that L.'s teacher welcomes our submitting alternative homework for L. as long as the goals for the project/assignment are reflected in the assignment. And for the first time since first grade L. has asked to have his desk moved in from the periphery of the classroom into the circle with the others--something he never wanted, or even seemed able to consider. Up until now the only way he felt in control of who entered or didn't enter his sense of space around him in the classroom was to relegate himself to the corners, his back to a window, or a wall. Now he sits, his elbows brushing from time to time against someone else's, and while not everything is perfect all of the time with this arrangement, what is important is that he chose it himself. And there are other details, little ones; other steps forward, tiny ones. We're only one quarter into this new school year, and I know that it won't be clear sailing for the next three--oh, I do know this. But when I look at L.'s report card I see more than that simple number next to the word "math"--I see the sum of days and weeks and months and years of tiny steps and back-tracks, forward, then back again; good days, and bad days; good years and bad years, leading us--if not out of the woods, into a clearing, at least.