Thursday, March 07, 2013

A Contentious Parent Conference

Recently I had a parent conference that lasted 80 minutes after school.  It got so contentious at times that I was exhausted enough when it was over that I didn't do my own homework that night.

I write this post not to disparage the parent but to ask a genuine, serious question:  What is the "correct" answer to the question, "How can I help my student do better in your class?"

I don't want flippant answers--yes, I know the student should do the work, not the parent, but the parents wants to know what he/she can do to help.  Yes, I know the student could ask more clarifying questions in class, could see me outside of class, etc.  I'm looking deeper.  I want serious, reflective answers.

Here's why.  I don't know what the answer is to that question, but I don't think it's the correct question. What the parent really wants to know, and only sometimes says outright, is, how can my kid do better in your class?

And the answer is simple.  The student needs to get more answers right on tests and quizzes, and better demonstrate an understanding of the material on labs and projects.  How the student is going to do that?  I have no idea!  If I knew what would cause students to get A's, they'd already be doing it and they'd all be getting A's!  I don't know exactly what would cause any particular student to score one or two letter grades higher on a test.  I know some generic things that couldn't hurt (mentioned those above) but there are no silver bullets.  But that's what so many parents want.



Dan Edwards said...

I don't have an answer....but just a few things that pop into my head by reading your post....and we've all been there.

First, it appears to me that this process, school achievement and striving for academic excellence and learning begins many years prior to high school. I see it like kid A - TV on all the time, parents don't read to him, not much verbal interactions, few cultural excursions. Kid B - parents talk to him, read stories, make literacy and learning part of growing up; going on family outings to historical, political and cultural get my point?
March a bit late in year for such a conference....

I'd suggest additional help - hire a tutor? Online program?

Please keep us informed about this....Good Luck.

MikeAT said...

I've found two types of people who succeed at math. One have a natural inclination to it (like you Darren) or someone who has to simply hit the books and practice, practice and practice.

I barely passed college algebra in my first misguided college youth. In my second I was making As in Calculus and DE. But that was due to practicing equations for hours at a time. One of the greatest helps I got was acquiring a teacher's solution manual for my calculus book. This gave me the solutions for all the even numbered questions (the text book already had the solutions for the odd numbers questions).

Sounds like your student needs to get in a quiet area, take his book and start practicing problems. Darren, if your text book has some solutions at the back he can use it. And I know there are web site he can get more problems to practice with.

MHO, for what it's worth.

maxutils said...

Three things: they must have had the proper preparation for the course. They must do the homework to the best of their ability every night, with as little help as possible. Lastly, they must never leave class with a question unanswered. One of my all time best students used to apologize to me for asking so many questions, both about homework and during lecture (she probably averaged around 10 per day.) But, come test time? She nailed everything. And I know that every single question she asked helped someone else who was too timid to ask the same question.

Ellen K said...

Darren, I think this goes beyond math. We have a problem. We have students who assume they will succeed because by and large they've never been allowed to fail. While failure isn't a good thing, the reality that few people succeed at everything. We've become a nation where everyone gets a trophy for participation. Is it any wonder that down the road these same students become voters that support this kind of mentality? There's an article linked on my blog from The Atlantic that addresses this phenomenon. I found it very interesting.

Anonymous said...

In many respects high school math can be quite simple to master. Which is not the same thing as "easy."

The simple thing to do is that every day you go home and do *ALL* the homework problems. By yourself. Without looking up the answers. Even before that, if you don't think you can do them, you go get help that afternoon when school lets out.

Then you check the questions that you can and figure out why you got the wrong answers for the ones you missed.

Then you do *MORE* of the types of problems you missed. Until you don't miss them any more.

If you don't understand, then you go get help from the teacher the very next day.

And you don't let yourself get behind figuring that you'll "catch up for the test."

What is most important here is discipline *AND* not fooling yourself about whether you actually know how to do a given problem.

Looking at a wrong answer and going, "Oh, that's right. I knew that," is a form of cheating. No, you didn't *know* that. You *recognized* that when you saw the correct answer, but you didn't *know* that. If you did know that, you would have gotten the problem correct.

This level of effort is not what most students (and most parents) want to hear. But there are no silver bullets.

-Mark Roulo

Anonymous said...

The parent is hoping that you'll use your expertise to provide them guidance on what to do. That assumes that you can understand what the problem is, of course (I don't know if you can, yet.)

If you do, you can explain it in a way that many parents don't get.

For example:
"I notice from the tests that Bob is reasonably skilled at doing algebraic manipulations. He understand the theory. But he's held back by the fact that he can't quickly do arithmetic in his head; most of algebra involves fast manipulations. So I would suggest that he spend a bit of time doing drill and kill on arithmetic."

Of course, this assumes that your homework (and/or quizzes) are designed to suss out whether bob can't solve problems because he's confused about what xy(x^2) means, or because he doesn't know the "speed tricks" for finding factors, or because he can't divide 128 by 4 without using a calculator or writing it out in long division.

If your tests don't show that (most don't) then perhaps you can write a quiz sheet that will help them know.

Anonymous said...

Forgot to add:

...the issue isn't only THAT they're doing it wrong. The issue is WHY they're doing it wrong.

As someone who used to tutor I had the luxury on focusing on "what's ideal for Bob?" as opposed to "on average, what's the least-worst solution for Bob and his 24 classmates?"

Every now and then you get a kid who needs your help figuring out what problem they have, so that they can actually solve it. Often it's an issue of working smarter as much as working harder.

Happy Elf Mom said...

I don't know how to say this. I had excellent HIGH SCHOOL math teachers, but had bad preparation in the years preceeding. My parents were good people in terms of following up on my progress.

The truth is, I was scared of math, did poorly in it, would literally get headaches thinking about it.

I wish someone seriously sent me back to do first grade worksheets. Then second grade. Then third. Maybe something over a break where I could see where my gaps were. Just keeping on going when I felt lost wasn't helping.

My parents paid for tutors, and they never went backwards, because they were paid to teach me the *current* material. Which I could learn just enough to pass the test, but had no real understanding of what I *learnt*. It was a series of tricks to get through a formula.

Ok, I hope that makes sense, but it was only after I began homeschooling my own children and HAD to face math again that I was able to do it one grade and step at a time.

Now I can add, sometimes without using paper. I do not understand upper-level math, but I am not afraid of learning some, either.

Well, there is my perspective for what it is worth. :)

Left Coast Ref said...

A colleague and I were talking today at lunch about a similar topic. He was having his class determine the mass of the air in the room. He gave them the density and then they measured the room. He said, "There you go. Figure it out." 9 out of 10 didn't know where to start. He went to help one young lady. He asked, "What is the volume of the room?" Her response? I don't know. So he said, how would you find the volume of a block? IDK. She literally had no clue where to start.

It is a math-literacy thing for a lot of students. Never being challenged to figure things out. And like Maxutils said, some people are blessed with the ability to calculate.

Back to your question, what do you tell a parent? IMHO, they should take away the iPod, cell phone and computer while they are doing homework. Focus on the problems at hand. Sit at the dining room table with the TV, stereo and computer off. If there are other distractions around (say younger siblings), give them something to work on simultaneously (Legos, Lincoln Logs, or their own homework.) Let the mind be free to think of solutions, not find answers. I tell my students there are lots of ways to get to the answer.