I took a deep breath and looked over my notes.
“I can do this… probably,” I thought to myself. Math has never been my strong point.
“Who in here thinks that my kids are good at math?” Greg Tang polled our class.
The room echoed with nervous, confused laughter.
“Of course they are! I am a math teacher and my kids are Chinese!” he laughed.
I rolled my eyes, inwardly groaning at the joke. But… I want my kid to be good at math. I’m not a math teacher. And I’m not Chinese.
“Don’t worry. I’m going to teach you all how to speak Chinese after the break,” Tang assured us, stepping back from the podium.
I chuckled at this. Tang was the day’s featured writer at the Author’s Institute that I attended last week at Worcester State University. A well known math consultant and author, Tang specializes in helping to make common core math accessible and engaging. He shared a number of valuable strategies, but his tips about how to overcome being a mediocre math student struck home.
After the promised break, Tang showed us how Chinese kids learn to count.
Basically, instead of using confusing names like “eleven,” “twelve” or “twenty” he suggests using the Chinese way of counting as “nicknames” for numbers to help develop a stronger sense of the power of ten.
11 becomes “ten and one”
12 becomes “ten and two”
20 becomes “two tens”
This pattern of counting with “nicknames,” Tang assured me, will give my kid a six month advantage over other English speaking kids. (That’s enough to get into Harvard, right?)
I was hooked. This logical pattern was sure to help my kid better understand the most basic elements of math theory. As a parent, I want to do anything I can to engage my kid in learning. I couldn’t wait to share our new counting system with Patrick.
He was horrified. Patrick pushed back from the table, aghast.
“That’s just silly. Just call the number ‘eleven!'”
Patiently, I explained how using this system could better help our son understand the power of ten, math theory and develop an intrinsic number sense. To further my point, I returned to one of Tang’s examples.
“What’s the product of 4 and 35?”
Patrick leaned back, bobbing his head as he tallied, struggling to recall facts and strategies memorized decades ago. Nearly a minute passed by.
“Stop! Its easy. Two sets of two 35.. 35+35= 70, and two 70’s is 140,” I rattled.
Patrick’s mouth was slack, forming an “0.” I grinned.
“Okay, try 91 divided by 7,” I pushed.
Desperate to prove me wrong, he pursed his lips and tilted his head back, determined to tally numbers faster, this time.
“When you know the power of ten, its easy! 91-70 is 21. 7 goes into 21 three times… so 10+3 is 13,” I smirked, victorious.
“I have no idea how you did that, but I totally want our kid to be able to,” he assented.
This, from the girl who failed freshman math. I really can do this.