a peek inside the fishbowl

08 Jan, 2016

Where Math and Parenting intersect (Part 1)

Posted by andrea tomkins in: Misc. life

You probably don’t know this about me, but I have a long and tortured history with math. In fact, it’s one of the reasons I eventually went into journalism.

It started in first grade. I was very proud to be The Smart Kid. I excelled at this. I was top of the class in everything: Group 1 for reading, Group 1 for writing, and… suddenly I found myself in Group 2 for arithmetic. I remember shyly sidling up the teacher’s desk to ask her about it right after the announcement. “I’m pretty sure I belong in group 1,” I said. She patted me on the head and told me I had to work harder. And so I did. I doubled down and eventually made it to the top group. (Not without some degree of pestering on my part either, although I now realize I may have been reallocated only because I bothered her about it so much.)

These were the years of group memorization of times tables, acres of work sheets, and struggling to figure out the right answer on the chalkboard in front of the whole class. Basically, things that didn’t work for my particular brain and introverted personality.

Fast forward to grade nine. I failed my first test, in math. I remember how awful it felt. It was a real punch in the gut for the Former Smart Kid. I struggled and studied and held on to record low grades. (Which for me, would have hovered in the 70% range at that time.)

Fast forward to grade ten. I was in the gifted math class (long story) and the teacher handed back our tests. He always wrote two numbers at the top of the page: one was your grade, and the other was your ranking in the class. I was always at the bottom, and everyone knew it. This was also the year of standardized testing. It was a multiple choice and I guessed at half of the questions. I can still remember my classmate’s faces when the teacher announced the student who placed first in the class, and me, who came in second. (!)

Fast forward to grade eleven. I can see myself sobbing at our dining room table while my father tried to show me his way of doing math. I felt like a huge idiot. How could I not understand the things he was trying to show me? He was patient explaining it, until he was impatient. I understand this better now.

It was around this time that the school guidance counsellor came into our math class to talk about planning for university. “YOU MIGHT NEED MATH,” he warned. “EVEN THOUGH YOU DON’T THINK YOU DO.” I was horrified. I hadn’t thought about this. He went on to give us examples e.g. if one of us wanted to be a forest ranger we’d need math to get into that program. Holy moly, I thought. No way. You needed math for tree patrol?!

I must have run to the library, sweating all the way. Journalism and English lit were the two degrees on my radar, WHAT IF THEY WOULDN’T TAKE ME because I’m a certified math idiot? Thankfully, I discovered I didn’t need math and I was able to avoid it completely in university. Afterwards, I sailed through life pretending I was confident in this area, when really, I am far from it.

Enter, the children. I promised myself that this was my second chance at learning math from the beginning, starting with (I am not even joking) the very early grades. Maybe this time I’d get it right. Well, what is it they say about good intentions? That was my plan but it never happened.

Where did the system fail me? It’s something I wonder about. Would I have turned out to be a different person if I’d had the right kind of support and instruction from the beginning? And what IS the right kind of math instruction? I talked to someone about it recently, and found out a few interesting things about how kids learn math skills – and confidence – to last a lifetime.

[Part two of this post is right here.]

2 Responses to "Where Math and Parenting intersect (Part 1)"

1 | Sabrina

January 8th, 2016 at 4:52 pm


As someone very interested in education … I can’t wait to hear the rest of this story. A cliff-hanger on the blog!

2 | Lisa from Iroquois

January 9th, 2016 at 9:34 am


You are not alone. Apparently in Grade 1 I announced to the teacher I was going to be a writer and so I did not need to learn math. She pointed out I would need it to number the pages of my books.

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My name is Andrea and I live in the Westboro area of Ottawa with my husband Mark and our dog Piper who is kind of a big deal on Instagram. We also have two human offspring: Emma (24) and Sarah (22). During the day I work as a writer at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. I am a longtime Ottawa blogger and I've occupied this little corner of the WWW since 1999. The Fishbowl is my whiteboard, water cooler, and journal, all rolled into one. I'm passionate about healthy living, arts and culture, travel, great gear, good food, and sharing the best of Ottawa. I also love vegetables, photography, gadgets, and great design.

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