Sunday, March 23, 2014

Tutor Time: One Solution to Solving Math Problems

Tutor Time: One Solution to Solving Math Problems

by Doug Page
Writer's Note:  This article, by yours truly, appears in this month's Bay State Parent. 

Editor’s Note: When a child’s math skills don’t add up, is it time for a tutor? This month, baystateparent asked one father to share his experience finding a specialized math school to help his son.

Way back yonder, when children were but a passing fancy, I had this recurring nightmare: Our kids are born with my history/writer brain instead of their mother’s financial/math brain.

If it was particularly horrifying, the nightmare included a word problem.

“Joe has $5 and wants to buy five apples for his four friends and himself. Each apple costs $1.36. Can Joe buy everyone an apple?”

The nightmare always ended the same way – me running for my life!

As good fortune would have it, the subject challenges only half of our children. Our fifth grade boy finds math much easier than our fourth grader.

So, it’s better than I dreamt.

Still, what to do to help our youngest son?

About 18 months ago, as school was coming to an end, my wife purchased math books for each of our boys. The books were recommended by our school district. The exercises, we were told, would keep the kids’ skills sharp during the summer break.

Our younger son’s teacher warned us that he had some issues with math. But we were confident that by working through the book, all would be fine come September.

Unfortunately, by the time he finished the last lesson, my wife and I were struck with fear that his math skills left a lot to be desired.

To confirm our thinking, I asked our younger son to answer a complex, mathematical problem.

“What’s 10 minus 9?”

His deer-in-the-headlights response told me all I needed to know: He was in trouble.

Now we had a quagmire.

There were two weeks until school started. What to do? Get a tutor? Find a class? It was all very confusing.

Just a short time later, on a Saturday morning while watching our younger boy play baseball, a mom I knew started telling me about her son and his math struggles.

Like us, they had worked with their boy on his math skills during the summer and endured some of the same experiences – tears and emotional outbursts from him while working through the exercises.

So, to improve his skills, she and her husband enrolled him in the Russian School of Mathematics in Newton. My wife and I decided to check it out – and quickly.

I called the principal of the school’s Wellesley location and she agreed to allow our son to “audit” the first class so we could get a sense of his reaction.

As we drove to that first class, there were tears and more tears from our son, who was convinced he was headed for some sort of torture. I tried to calm him, saying it would be fine. Two hours later, when I picked him up, his face was all smiles.

“How was it?” I asked.

“I had fun,” he replied.

With that, I paid the tuition, finalizing his enrollment while simultaneously feeling a huge sense of relief.

I can’t tell you that our son found the class easy, but it has been very helpful. Part of what made the experience so strong was that the class size was very small, all of about seven children. His math skills improved substantially and the lessons put him slightly ahead of his peers.

His teacher covered the concepts of area and perimeter about six weeks to a month ahead of his elementary school teacher, helping our younger boy to look like an old pro to his classmates when the time came to cover the same material – a huge confidence boost for him.

The biggest challenge our younger boy faced, as did my wife, was the homework. It takes about two hours to complete and that means setting aside time, mostly on the weekend, to finish it.  

Like many a family, we’ve traveled on vacation with his math assignments in tow.

The school we chose hands out grades and a written assessment for each kid, giving parents a sense of the child’s performance. But that was not our main concern. Our biggest goal was making sure our boy’s skills were improving. As long as that was happening, we weren’t worried, too much, about the grades.

To keep his math skills up this past summer, we enrolled him in a class at the Russian School that met twice a week for two hours each time. (Of course, he was thrilled – NOT!)

As the fall session approached, we enrolled both boys. For our elder son, the class is more about pushing his skills beyond where they are. Similar to what I saw with our younger son, I’m noticing his fifth grade class at the Russian School is ahead of his elementary school’s math work.

As someone who suffers from, for lack of a better term, a math phobia – likely brought on by my first grade teacher throwing my math book across the classroom – I’ll say the extra help has been a godsend. The program works for our family. 

It is not cheap, and we are fortunate my wife makes the kind of money that allows us to send both of our boys.

The education is tough and demanding. But by having the kids constantly repeat drills, tutoring made our sons more comfortable with the subject. It’s making their lives easier not only in their elementary school but also with daily math facts.

On a recent September morning, while reading aloud from Gregory Boyington’s autobiography about his days as a World War II pilot, I mentioned that he was paid $500 for each Japanese airplane he shot down while flying with the American Volunteer Group over China. Our elder boy asked how many planes he knocked out of the sky.

“Six,” I said.

“He made $3,000,” piped up our younger son.

A smile crossed my face as I thought, “Thank God!”

No comments: