The bedtime story. It is a fixture of parenting. All snuggled up, in the moments right before sleep, we fall in love with with the power of stories. Teachers know the power of the bedtime story. In my experience, even the most hardcore of homework free educators will encourage that one thing: Read every night. We know that practice leads to proficiency. We also know that choice leads to a lifelong love of reading, far more than any assignment or drill.
In our society, Literacy is a must; A stepping stone to success; a need.
So where is that nightly snuggle when it comes to Math? Numeracy, especially strong, flexible number sense, is also a necessary skill in our society. Numeracy and Literacy do not get equal play in our homework folders, however. While I have cosy memories of Narnia, Bunnicula, Ramona and The Jungle Book, I have few memories of Math as a young child. I’m sure there were worksheets, but they don’t find space in memory. The best we can hope for with that kind of Math is ambivalence; The worst is visceral hatred or residual fear and self-doubt that, for many people, lasts the rest of their lives. In the same way that we create a love of reading through cosy bedtime stories and stolen moments with a favourite book, we create an adversity to Math through dry, painful, mostly useless Math homework that, in many households involves nightly tears and tantrums.
There are alternatives.
As a teacher, homework never sat right with me. As a parent, I have come to loathe it. In our busy world, the time spent fighting over a worksheet, or a list of spelling words feels like theft. Theft of our time as a family. But I read to my children every night. That time is precious. I have read to them every night since the day they were born. They both love books. My son, aged 7, reads novels like he’s gotten into the ice cream. My daughter, aged 6, is just learning to read and what she can’t read, she makes up based on the pictures. They both have a strong literacy foundation, all without tears (except when it comes to whose book gets read first). The past couple of years, as I watched my son’s mindset harden into, “I don’t want to talk about Math,” with a growing sense of dread, I started to wonder how I could change his perspective. I wondered the same for the students in my class. Being in grade 6, many of them had hardened to math long ago. I didn’t know if I could make a difference, but I wanted to try.
As a single parent of primary aged children, I don’t have a lot of time. We get home, make dinner, eat dinner, read and it’s bedtime. On the days we have an activity after school, it’s even tougher. As much as I wanted to play awesome mathy games with my kids, go on pattern hunts, cook together, do art and build things (all of which are great ways to work on mathematical thinking with children), I couldn’t get it together to do any of these things daily. I needed something that was as easy as reading a bedtime story and also, if at all possible, could somehow be done at the same time. I also needed something, in the beginning, that didn’t seem too “Mathy,” so as not to trigger my son’s, “Nope. That’s Math,” response.
It happened, almost by accident, one night during their bedtime stories. My daughter had chosen a charming little picture book called The Secret Life of Squirrels by Nancy Rose. Nancy makes tiny sets and photographs the squirrels in her backyard. The story is about Mr. Peanuts, one of the squirrels. The tiny sets are so interesting that the kids and I were examining each picture closely, wondering aloud about how she got the squirrels to do certain poses and what materials she had used in the construction. Already deeply invested in our Notice/Wonder, I casually (with a side-eye for my son’s reaction) asked, How Many squares do you think are on that wallpaper in Mr. Peanut’s kitchen? The ensuing conversation on how to find out without counting (there were lots and lots) took enough time that I had to cut it short or risk missing bedtime altogether.
Having achieved such success with Mr. Peanuts, I thought I would push my luck with my son’s favourite book, Animal Planet’s Top 10 Countdowns of the Biggest, Baddest and Loudest. The book is mostly full of terrifying predators and venomous creatures and had greatly improved my son’s vocabulary, through his repeated readings, punctuated by questions like, “What’s ‘fatalities’?” and “What does N – E – C – R – O – S – I – S spell?” Choice and interest, right? I decided to harness his deep interest in the subject matter, “Wow! Look! It says that this penguin is 36 inches tall. How tall were you the last time we measured? I wonder if anyone is as tall as 2 penguins? Hey, look, it weighs 20lbs. You weigh 46lbs? I wonder why you weigh more than twice as much as the penguin, but you aren’t twice as tall?” And so on. The whole book is a gold-mine of weights and measures, top speeds and numbers of deaths per year. Most importantly, while it may not be my favourite thing to read before bed, it’s his favourite thing.
My son’s mindset towards Math has changed substantially in the last couple of years. He no longer sees math as a trap or a laborious, boring task that ends with nothing of importance. For my daughter, Math has always been about noticing her world; A conversation. Now I see that in both of them. In another post, I will write about some of the other things I did (and am still doing), at home, to get him there. A lot of the credit also goes to his teachers, who brought Math off of his worksheets and into Inquiry and STEM, which he loves. In the meantime, check out Math Before Bed, Talking Math With Your Kids
#tmwyk and #mathphoto19 (or any of the mathphoto hashtags by @TheErickLee on Twitter), as well as your local library for lots of picture books and magazines (Any reading material works, but novels are more challenging because its annoying to lose the flow of reading the story and they don’t have many pictures).
Kids of all ages need to feel joy and connection to Numeracy. With a small amount of thought and effort, we can help them find those connections. Just as we encourage Bedtime Stories, Book Match our struggling readers to stories we think they will love, read aloud in class and provide time for children to read their own books, so must we do with Math activities and conversations. It begins with choice. It begins with interests already ignited.