Monday, April 16, 2012

A Zero

This year, Nick has been using IXL, a math program the school bought to use for their kids.  It's a good program.  I have no problem with its methods.  A child can log into their work and see a list of units in their grade.  Shoot, Nick was trying out units from seventh grade for a while.  There are no internal limits set to that.  I told him that he needed to stick with fifth grade work since it was the foundation for seventh.  Mike told him to do whatever he wanted to do in the program since none of it had been assigned.  Math was math, he said.  We're both right. 

In September, Nick's teacher told the parents at a meeting that he'd asked the kids to do five minutes of IXL practice every night, but that we should let them succeed or fail on their own.  I thought that was a good idea and I let Nick handle it.  He was motivated for a while, but slowly let off from doing it at all.  When I'd ask him if he had any homework after school, he would happily say, "Nope!"  I loved seeing him have time to play and felt it was a good teacher who recognized this need in elementary school children.  For fourth grade, Nick had as much as two hours of homework each night, occasionally more.  I believed it was ridiculous, even deleterious to a child's development.  I was about to gather petitions and evidence in the forms of studies that had been made and wanted to bring my complaints to the school board.  When Nick's fifth grade teacher said he didn't believe in homework, I almost cheered out loud.  Kids need playtime, lots of playtime! They need to climb trees, explore in the woods, ride their bikes, hang around in groups, and even sit alone in the quiet sometimes.  Looking for four-leaf clovers and at cloud shapes in the sky are good for the imagination.

Still, I wanted Nick to be learning the important concepts he needed in math.  He's good at math.  He even likes math.  In January, when I realized that Nick wasn't going to pick up the mantle of responsibility, I asked him to do twenty minutes of math each night.  Putting that together with his nightly reading was still under an hour and still allowed him lots of time to play.  I could see on the list of units that he was making progress using IXL since I logged him in to get him started and see what was up.  When Nick is finished with a unit, it gives him a 100 next to the title so a quick scan shows how much progress has been made.  It also awards Nick little tiles that he was very proud of.  He'd occasionally have me come look at something new he'd done.  I felt kind of bad that I was undermining the teacher's request to have him motivate to do it on his own, but I tried not to worry about it too much.  Independence and time management come in stages. 

Well, in mid-January, Nick's teacher used him as an example of a kid who was making progress by being consistent with his IXL practice.  Nick was so happy that he was almost the only one who was doing it.  With that, the teacher said that the kids were now required to do ten minutes of work on the computer each night, that they weren't keeping up their end of the bargain.  Nick was very happy that he'd already been doing the work.  When he wanted to drop back to ten, I encouraged him to stick with twenty.  I told him to look at the list of units, that he needed to do most of them by the end of the summer.  I figured that we could sign him up if the school's membership dropped when school was out for the summer.  It would be worth it since math was getting more complex and I couldn't just give him the basic arithmetic to do along with making change at the toy store. 

Nick was just cruising along.  I could see the 100s building up next to one unit after another.  I was proud of him.  He was proud of himself and except for that little push I gave him, was completely independent while doing it.  Success is when math grades go up and a kid still says he likes math.  Success is when he's excited about gathering the token awards on the program.  IXL works!

Well, IXL works when it is used properly.  When I asked Adrian if he used IXL, he said, "Yup! The teacher assigns us units to do each week and we have to do them.  It's part of our homework."  That sounded as if it were working too.  Adrian had slid into a math slump and maybe it was IXL and his teacher that worked with him to get out of it.  He's gone back to liking math again.  Another success story.

Then, last Thursday, Nick came home with a page listing 60 specific IXL units.  Some of them were marked as complete.  Good, I thought.  He'll have something to work by for the next month or two.  I was glad Nick had some direction about what was most important. 

No, that wasn't what the paper was for.  Nick was required to have the entire sheet done within fourteen days.  He still needed to do 48 of them!  Somehow, the list danced around the multitude of problems Nick had already completed.  What?

I did a little calculation.  If Nick worked every day for fourteen days, he'd need to do about three and a half units each day to finish this assignment.  Assuming that most of the units took about twenty minutes to complete, that would mean he'd have almost an extra hour of work every night.  What?  That's a lot to complete.  I figured we could knock out some extra work over the weekend and maybe it wouldn't be too hard to keep up. 
Oh, how wrong I can be.  On Friday, I helped Nick to finish a geometry unit on area. Nick said his teacher had asked them to focus on geometry and he was half done with this one, but struggling.  I decided that despite the emphasis on the kids doing their own work this year, I'd work with Nick.  I started mostly because our computer keys are sticky and I thought I could eliminate some mistakes due to that.  It's a brand new computer and already the keys are sticking.  What is that?  As I saw what was happening, my typing assistance evolved into full-on tutoring and cheerleading.  I promised him I'd never tell him any answers, despite his hopes to that effect.  I showed him a couple of diagrams to help him do his work and explained some things.  I hope it helped.  After an hour and a half on Friday, he finally finished that one unit.  He had the concept down cold, but it took longer than we'd both expected.  It was frustrating for him since he knew he really needed to finish not one, but three units. Still, he really understood the work.  That was good, I thought.  We could catch up with the other two from Friday over the weekend. 

Oh, how wrong I can be.  Again.  Yesterday, we spent 48 minutes and completed 88% of the next geometry section.  By the time we were done, Nick was done.  Oh, he had the idea of it, but he was getting a cold, so I typed for him, tried to ease his way by redirecting him if he made a careless error, and hoped to make it a little bit more fun.  IXL is fun until you have to complete three units a day.  We still have all day Sunday, I thought.  Nick might not be totally finished, but he'll show a good effort.  That will be worth something and maybe one of the next units will be easy and just take ten minutes instead of an hour. 

Wrong again.  Can you hear the buzzer going off behind my head like I'm on a game show and I'm going home with the consolation prize?  Today, Nick and I were bound together in our effort to complete one unit of geometry.  He was really tired of the one he'd done the day before, so I figured we could work on the next one and then go back later and finish off the other.  No problem, right?

Wrong again.  There may be neon lights behind my head now, spelling out the word 'LOSER.'  Today, I totally failed as a tutor, and worse, as a mother.  We worked for three and a half hours with breaks interspersed because I am not totally insane, mostly maybe, but not totally.  By the time I was done, Nick's eyes were closed against the glare of his fourth piece of double-sided scratch paper.  Again, he understood the concept, but in the real IXL world, he'd have gotten half done and gone on to something else to rest his head.  In the real IXL world, he'd have been awarded three or four tokens shaped like dogs or flowers or candy.  In the real IXL world, this assignment would have been spread out over the course of two or three months.  If Nick's teacher had needed him to complete specific sections, he could have made that clear to the kids in September before they randomly picked the wrong sections. 

So now, in the three days we've worked to our new schedule, we've averaged one hour fifty-five minutes each day.  We have completed the last 40% of one unit, 88% of the next, and 94% of a third.  On paper, it looks as if Nick has done one of them.  Just one.  To be able to check off nine units on his list was my initial goal for Nick this weekend and he completed just one. 

This is not the proper use of this wonderful math program.  I'm sorry to say that in the last three days, Nick has begun to groan as if I were taking him to the orthodontist to get his braces tightened when I say the words IXL, how do you solve this problem, and stay with me, here.  If we keep up this pace, he will forever grimace instead of grinning whenever someone asks if he likes math. 

As I was tucking Nick into bed tonight, I told him that he was putting in a great effort toward completing this assignment but I was pretty sure he wasn't going to be able to get it finished.  I told him I was proud of him no matter what happened with it. 

"But Mom," he said, "I'm going to get a zero if I don't get it all done, a zero."

You have got to be kidding me.

Thank you for listening, jb

Here's an important update:  Nick's teacher talked to the class about this assignment.  Apparently, he told everyone that Nick had spent nearly twice as much time working on it over the weekend as anyone else in the class.  Nick was really proud of his effort, thanks to this teacher.  Then, the man announced that he didn't want anyone spending more than thirty minutes each night to complete the work on IXL.  Hallelulah!  Nick's teacher has gone way up in my estimation. 

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