You Can Make a Difference

By Kay Toliver

It’s no secret that math can be challenging – but today, we can’t afford to let any student write the subject off as ‘boring,’ or ‘difficult.’ It’s too much a part of the world they’ll inherit after graduation.

You don’t have to be a math expert to help your child. But you do need to show an interest. This starts with meeting your child’s teacher and seeing for yourself what goes on at school. I invite parents to visit my classes at any time. This often seems to amaze them. They say, “any day?” I say, “any day. If you’re at home, if you’re not working, come sit in the back of my classroom. The school is open to you.”

Parents can actually have a negative effect on math education, usually without realizing it. I frequently find that students’ negative attitudes about math stem directly from parental comments. Things like, “I was never any good at math, I’m still no good at math, or I still can’t balance my checkbook.”

The irony is, even adults who ‘hate’ math are probably using it much more than they think. One assignment I always give is to have students interview their parents (or other adults in the household) and ask them how they use math each day, especially in their jobs. This often has quite an effect on parents, who realize that, in fact, they use math quite a lot.

Mathematics is a subject in which we have to create thinkers, not memorizers. It is a subject that involves history and literature as well as numbers; it is more of a communication art than anything. If students are to become the thinkers of tomorrow, we can’t just concentrate on getting them to pass tests. We have to help them discover that math is alive, and related to every aspect of life.

Many outsiders view my community, East Harlem, as a place of slums, abandoned buildings, graffiti and drugs. Yet East Harlem is a place of rich history, culture, architecture and spirit. I love to take my students out in the neighborhood to discover this fact – and to see how math is involved in just about everything they look at. They take pictures, draw maps and invent problems based on the various types of math they see in buildings and bridges, and in the trade and commerce going on around them. Parents can encourage this kind of observation. For example, while waiting at an airport or train station, you can count the departures in one minute, and estimate the number for an hour, or for a day.

Teachers today are being asked to help students make these kinds of connections between school and the world outside. I’ve had a chance to help students throughout the country do this, as host of a PBS classroom series called The Eddie Files, produced by the Foundation for Advancements in Science and Education (FASE). In each episode, students get a chance to see how specific math concepts are important to everything from designing buildings and composing music to running a restaurant.

When students discover that their math lessons have something to do with something they might like to do later in life, it has a powerful motivating effect. You can help this along by looking for math in things you do or see with your child, and talking about your observations. You don’t have to get technical; just get them interested, raise some questions. Start with things that you know they are attracted to, even sports or music.

As I tell the parents of my students, I can’t do it alone. We need to work in partnership. After all, mathematics is much more than something children must do because ‘it’s good for them.’ It’s a tool that can help make their dreams come true.