# of pages written: 2 (yikes)
# of times I’ve checked email/facebook:7
# of days left to write 1st draft: 151
I love math and have been tutoring for years with relative ease, but today I had what I can honestly describe as the most intense tutoring session ever. Let me set the scene. It starts with me talking to the mom on the phone the other day for upwards of forty-five minutes. Somehow telling me that her twin boys need SAT tutoring devolved into family history, medical history, and basically a summary of her entire life story. The boys, she told me, are staying with their grandparents on the Cape, and their grandfather, a retired math professor, has been trying to tutor them with mixed results.
“Now, he’s probably going to talk your ear off and monopolize your time,” she told me. “He’s going senile. You might have to just tell him to go away.”
Oh great, I think. So I’ll be tutoring and shoo-ing away a senile grandfather.
I got to the house today and parked in front. I was turning my phone to vibrate when the grandmother appeared at my passenger side door.
“Oh! Hello!” I said.
“They’re ready for you,” she told me.
“They” was the twins (identical), their grandfather (British), and another member of the family who I assumed was the father but could just as well have been a weird uncle.
I was ushered into the dining room; the table was covered in various SAT books and copies of old tests. The grandfather started to talk, but I cut him off at the pass. “Let me just do my spiel with them first, and we can discuss later,” I told him.
“Fine.” He sat down at the dining room table and crossed his arms. So did the father. I got out my SAT strategies sheet and started going over it with the twins. The grandfather and father hung on my every word, waiting for me to say something they could disagree with. The cat jumped onto the table and spread itself across the SAT tests, batting at our pencils.
“Now, how can you tell if those two ratios are equal?” I asked one of the twins.
“I could divide them in my calculator?”
“Absolutely. You’re allowed to have your calculator on the test, and that’s a quick way to do it.”
“Now the thing is,” the father piped up, “you shouldn’t have to use your calculator for that because if you knew your number theory–”
“The problem is,” the grandfather interjected, “that they don’t know how to problem solve. To be honest, I don’t know why they can’t solve these problems. They’re simple enough to me. Now, let me show you how I would do this problem.”
“Actually,” I said, “why don’t I work with the boys for now, and we can look at that in a minute?” I was beginning to sweat.
“Fine,” the grandfather said again. He gave me some badly photocopied practice tests, and I gave them to the twins. There was no extra copy for me, and I wanted to make sure that I knew how to do the problems in case they had questions, so I stood over them, trying to do the problems in my head while the grandfather talked at me. I’ve never been good at mental math, but luckily, the boys were getting most of them right, and the ones they didn’t understand I knew how to explain.
“I need help with this problem,” one of the twins (I don’t know which one) said after awhile.
“I’ve already explained that one to you once,” the grandfather said grumpily. “Let Eva explain it.” He didn’t add, “if she thinks she’s so smart,” but I heard it in his voice.
I squatted down next to the twin and squinted at the problem. I could feel everyone’s eyes on me, and my shirt was damp with sweat. The cat swiped at my pencil, and suddenly, my brain stopped working, and I had no idea how to solve the problem.
“When I look at this problem,” I told the twin, “my brain freezes and goes ‘bleh.’ Is that what happens to you?”
“But it’s OK. Maybe we don’t know how to solve it, but we take a deep breath and just play around with the info we have and see what we can figure out. So let’s brainstorm – what do we already know?”
This, I thought smugly, is how you teach problem solving, Grandpa. I might not know the answer, but I know how to get there.
Earlier today, I was feeling a bit frustrated with my writing, and I think this is a good thing for me to keep in mind. Relax. Take a deep breath. Brainstorm and play around and see what I can figure out. Now is not the time to worry about the answer.