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Parent Moments: The Sweet Taste of a Lesson Learned

math homework

When my second child, Quin, entered the fourth grade, I greeted the year with a familiar sort of shame. I had learned from his elder sister that fourth grade equals fractions -- and that fractions happen to be the point where I leave intuitive understanding behind and come head-to-head with my inability to help. Forget "Everyday Math" -- call it "Everyday Confusion."

Quin and I had already been on quite an academic journey together. My son is severely dyslexic; learning to read had been a challenge for him -- and, by extension, a challenge for me. But at least I'm good with words. Helping him with math would be even more difficult for me, math phobic as I am. It would be like the blind leading the blind.

But when he asked one day, "Why is the denominator smaller when the fraction is bigger?" the answer to both of our problems came to me in a flash: I have gleaned that Quin learns best when he can touch and feel what is being taught. We have traced letters in shaving cream, learned the days of the week by putting together puzzle pieces and differentiated vowels from consonants doing a very odd dance in front of a mirror that I hope never to have to repeat.

It was obvious by now that I should help Quin understand fractions by translating them into something tactile. In a diner at the time, I asked our patient server, Caesar, for several orders of those huge, plate-sized pancakes.

When the pancakes came, I lined them up in a row. Each one represented a whole, I explained to my son. And after I wielded my fork and knife, each piece would, in turn, come to represent a different fraction. I cut one pancake down the middle, the next in quarters, the third into eighths, and the final one into sixteenths. Together, my son and I counted the pieces on each plate.

"See how I cut this one into 16 pieces?" I asked. "Now put one-sixteenth into your mouth."

He chewed on the tiny sliver of pancake thoughtfully.

"Can I have some whipped cream on that?"

"Focus, Quin," I answered.

While he looked at me quizzically, I went to the next plate. He capably shoved one-eighth of the pancake in his mouth while I narrated: "The denominator is smaller because we cut the pancake into just eight pieces, not 16. But one-eighth of a pancake is a larger piece."

He tried to speak but I cut him off: "No, you cannot have whipped cream. I want you to concentrate."

Next, of course, Quin tried to put one-fourth of a pancake in his mouth. My kid is a mighty eater and he managed, though it was a struggle. "A fourth is half again the number of cuts," I told him. "It's a lot of pancake."

He nodded silently.

I pulled the pancake that was cut in half toward him. His mouth was still practically full, but I understood him to be saying, "Please, no!" through half-chewed pancake.

"Only one cut down the middle," I said. "When you're dividing a whole pancake into equal pieces, two is the very lowest denominator, but the biggest piece."

He nodded again.

"OK," I conceded, confident that the fraction lesson was firmly embedded in his mind -- and mouth. "Caesar, may we have some syrup over here?"

It is a challenge to see the blessings of dyslexia underneath the difficulties and anxiety an atypical learner faces. Of the many lessons I have learned from my son, the most useful has been to remind myself that no challenge is unsolvable, if only I can remember to think outside my own box, to shift perspective, to look at everything from a different angle.


What kinds of creative ways have you come up with to help your child find an interest in learning?

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