Saturday, May 1, 2010

Bloody Mary and the Paradox of 6th Grade Math Teachers

I've mentioned my fear of flying before. But have I also mentioned that I am also afraid of the dark? Yeah, I'm pretty much a ninny when the lights go out. These days I'm glad I live in Florida where we don't have a basement. There's nothing worse than turning the lights off in the basement and having to turn your back on the darkness to climb the stairs. I used to just leave the lights on. It's easier that way. So imagine my great surprise when my daughter comes running in and tells my wife and I that Bloody Mary is alive and well and living under her bathroom sink. "Come check it out" she says. I asked her, "Are you saying you stood in front of the mirror, turned out the lights, and spun around three times chanting, Bloody Mary, Bloody..." Ok, I'm not even gonna type it three times, "...and she appeared?" "Yep", she said, "And she grabbed my leg, see the scratch marks?, come with me". Yeah right. No thanks. I didn't see my wife jumping up to try it either.

But wait, I thought my daughter was afraid of the dark just like me, or so she claims. How is it that she musters the courage to do something like friends over daring one another to do it? Apparently her curiosity about the legend outweighs her fear of dying a ghastly death at the hands of "Bloody Mary". My daughter is curious and willing to take risks in order to learn things, even if that means in the dark.

So what could muster a kid with high curiosity, but "low self esteem and very little confidence" to overcome what should be a natural fear of the super least at her age. Some level of courage I would suggest. It's probably the same low self esteem that causes my daughter to teach herself to play the piano or to teach herself Japanese or to wear entirely different clothes at school. It's probably why her grades have suffered this semester. Heck, three A's, one B, and a D in math. Now there's a kid not trying very hard, she must have some emotional problems. She brought home a D in math after all. Yeah, that's a big problem. It surfaced back in the late fall. An eleven year old girl in 6th grade struggling in math. Wow! In the history of the world that's never happened yet it's her math teacher's theory that my daughter has "low self-esteem with very little confidence" and is therefore struggling in school.

Let me caveat this right up front by saying my daughter is not Hillary Clinton. She is not an overachieving extrovert with boundless confidence. She is however full of energy. Although by the end of the school day, her math class is her last period, her energy drops off a cliff. Math in the afternoon, just after lunch, hmmmm? Well I guess since the teacher says it's "low self-esteem and very little confidence" that's what it has to be. Regardless of the cause we did take action. I'm paying for a math tutor. A 5th grade teacher takes her after school for an hour every week. It's costing me $200 bucks a month but I consider it to be money well spent. Reports from the tutor have been positive, "She really understands the material, she just doesn't execute well on tests". OK, another clue. The pressure situation of tests might be stressing her out. Seems reasonable. Turns out we've discovered that she's been allowed to bring a page of notes with her to the tests she's been taking in class...but hasn't been bringing the page of notes with her. That's odd...truly odd. If she lacked confidence in a subject it seems like she would want to bring that kind of a crutch to class, I guess if she knew about it. Well, when I asked her math teacher, it seems that my daughter is a bit unorganized and she really should get organized because she will be going into middle school next year and all the responsibility will fall on her. She has 120 kids to worry about and can't keep up with them all. It seems her math teacher has been trying to prepare her students for middle school...has been since the first day of school. "These young mathematicians", she said at the open house last fall, "should really be in middle school, 6th grade is middle school and therefore they need to be working to take that level of personal responsibility". I'm not sure I'm down with that theory, but heck, I'm not down with the "New" math either. So what do I know?

I do know that my daughter has been trying. She really likes her math tutor, comes home and does her math homework, and by the end of the next semester she was up to a C in math. That's good progress from my perspective. I'm not pushing her into rocket science or anything, she's a artist and likes to write. I would like her to be able to balance her checkbook, or at least do decently on college entrance exams, but that's about it. And then last week happened. Interim grades rolled in. Looks like she dropped from three A's and a B, to one A and three B's with an F in math. That's right, after four months with a private tutor, putting the full court press on math, she walks home with an F. All that hard work and she's achieved something she's never achieved in seven years of school, she failed a subject. And not just any F. Her score for the first part of term was a 20. As in 20%. What quickly followed was a series of phone calls and emails to her math teacher. When we finally got through to her my wife did the talking. When she hung up the phone my wife was in tears. It appears that our daughter, according to Ms. Sigmund Freud, has "low self-esteem with very little confidence" which is why she has a 20% in math. How does she know this?

What followed was another series of email and phone calls until I was finally able to speak to Ms. Freud personally. Well it appears that while taking the first test my daughter would repeatedly walk up to her to ask for clarification on a problem...apparently the teacher did give her some hints but also a lecture on how she wouldn't be able to leave her seat to ask a question in middle school, or was I getting the lecture? Anyway she got a 20% on that test. So only one grade was reported on the interim report card. What about the second test? Well the teacher said my daughter finished the test early, like in 15 minutes, faster than any other student. She was told to go back and check her work. "Well what was her grade?". I asked. It appears that those tests haven't been graded yet. So what does finishing early have to do with her interim grade if we don't even know how well she did or didn't do? I'm perplexed. So then I asked, "What else have you noticed?" Well my daughter has missed a number of school days and therefore missed the third test. OK, can she make it up? She already has. OK, what did she get on the third test? Well I haven't graded it yet. OK so we have three test grades but we only know about the one that has been graded which is driving the "F". And what about homework? Well she has a zero on two homework assignments because she was absent from class on those days. This was followed promptly with another description of how she has told my daughter to come to her to get the homework that she missed, or was it another lecture parents getting the assignments from the office? I don't know, I was having trouble listening because I was in the middle of an out of body experience.

Now we are by no means perfect parents. Our daughter was really sick on a few of those days, and we did allow her to take a mental health day or two. Also, I can't blame her lack of fondness for math on my great love for the subject...I'm not the most patient of father's when it comes to helping her with the "New Math". But why worry too much, I was throwing money at the problem and the reports coming from the math tutor, who does conference with her teacher weekly, was that things were progressing smoothly?

Yet here we sit. Two weeks left in the school year with a 20% in math for the last semester and very little we can do about it. An "F" shining like a beacon of failure on her report card...threatening to be what she carries forward with her into middle school, or worse in my daughters mind, being held back. You came to the 6th grade with an open and inquisitive mind. All subjects still in play -- science, social studies, English, reading, and math. But somehow math has now slipped into the abyss. A subject forever lost, like so many young girls before you, as a subject that girls are just not that good in. At fault..."low self-esteem and confidence"...or essentially her parents inability to build her self-esteem and confidence in math.

As with all criticism lodged in my direction I shake my head yes, yes, yes...say it a million times, say it a million more times and the word that you will have said two million times is...YES...we are to blame. I should have been more patient. I should have worked with her more on the fundamentals. I should have infused in her the confidence to solve word problems. I should have made sure she was organized enough to come home with the homework when she was sick and to make-up the tests that she missed. I should go with her into the dark bathroom and stare into the mirror and chant, "Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary", and turn in three circles and prove too her that nothing will happen, she should not fear the supernatural, and that there is nothing to fear but fear itself. It's not too late. I can do better.

Except she already knows that there is no Bloody Mary. She wants to take me into the dark bathroom and show me there is nothing to fear. Unfortunately there is something to fear -- something she is too young to realize. There is an impervious wall, a battle if you will, that all girls hit about her age. It is a transitional phase from which those characteristics of self-esteem and confidence are indelibly etched into their psyhce and when they emerge on the other side of the wall they are either ready to conquer the world or they face a continous life long struggle with confidence. We, her parents, are charged with equipping her for this battle. This is a wake-up call to us, that we will not be receiving any support from Ms. Freud, and that's sad. A good role model in class, particularly in the subjects of science and math can be so confidence building for young girls. Not this year, we've been walking backwards.

I hope we have not lost her completely to math -- she is our only child -- we only have this one shot. I just never expected a distructive force helping our young girl lose her battle with math, and hence her interest and confidence to pursue the subject, would come from the very one who should be building her up at such a critical age. But as always has been the case in elementary schools, the majority of teachers are women, so in this particular case, it's hard to blame men for the bias, since the ratio has always been this way and since the distruction has been going on for decades. The paradox is now completely obvious.