22Mar2011

Homework, AKA Shouty Time

Albert_Einstein_Head_cleaned

“Do you have homework tonight?”

“Yes. It’s quite hard.”

“Oh.” We are in our local pizzeria, for a change. The homework thing, after a year of unschooling, comes as a bit of a shock to both of us. “What’s the problem?”

“It’s multiplying decimals.”

“Oh,” I say. “I thought you could do that.” He taught himself decimals and percentages. That was nice, because it meant I didn’t have to fight with him about it.

“But you’re not the best at long multiplication, are you?” He taught himself that too. Less said the better, perhaps.

“It’s not that,” he says. “It’s just really confusing. Anyway, it’s not due in till Wednesday so I don’t need to do it tonight.”


It turns out that the elusive homework is not multiplying decimals. It is multiplying and dividing fractions. And the internet we are stealing from the restaurant across the way is very, very patchy.

These sums looks quite difficult to me. They have scary numbers in them.

6/7 x 8/15

They also have ones where you need to cancel the numbers out.

2/9 x 9/11.

Oh god. And dividing. I remember dividing fractions. I remember weeks and weeks of dividing sodding fractions.

“I remember the bottom one’s called the denominator. But what about the top one, Mum?”

“Err…”

The internet is out. “I can’t remember, honey. It was a long time ago.”


His brow is furrowed as he stares intently at the worksheet.

“Oooh! You’ve done the first few! Well done!” I say, in my very best nice Mummy voice. “What’s the problem?”

“Shut up,” he says. “I’m trying to concentrate.”

Time passes. His lips move silently.

“But what’s the problem?” I ask again. “Why don’t you just do whatever you did on the first ones?”

“Because I can’t remember how I did it, alright?!


“I really think you should show your working,” I begin…

“I don’t need to,” he says. “I do it in my head.”

“Yes,” I say, and some primordial memory flickers.

I am fairly sure I have been on Z’s end of pretty much this exact conversation with my father, almost to the word, 25 years ago, or thereabouts. And, I realise with a sinking feeling, for about another five years after that.

“And you’ve got this sum, and this sum, and this sum, wrong by doing it in your head,” I hear myself saying, in almost the exact tone of barely controlled irritation my father used with me.

I take a deep breath. “If you show your workings and get the wrong answer, the teacher will know you were on the right lines.”

I realise I am doomed to replay these conversations from the other side of the fence, in some sort of parenting Groundhog Day.

“Can’t I just do a formula?” he asks.

“No,” I say, as I did the last time we had this conversation. “A formula is a great idea, but it doesn’t show the teacher your workings.”

“No one in school shows their workings. The teacher doesn’t care.” I am not qualified to comment on the truth of this.

He scribbles vigorously. “There!” he says. “I’ve written a formula.”

“That’s not a formula,” I say. “Formulas have letters in them. They’re algebraic.”

I realise turning multiplication of fractions into a formula would be a most excellent learning activity, virtually algebra lessons in fact. Then I try to think of how to do it and my brain turns into a nest of snakes.

“It IS a formula,” he says.

“It is NOT a formula. It’s an example of a sum. Now sit down, do your homework and SHOW YOUR F*CKING WORKINGS.”

I’m shouty, I’m swearing and we haven’t even started on dividing the bastard fractions.

We agree to leave that till tomorrow.


Some lovely people have told me on Twitter that “the number you divide by, turn upside down and multiply.” I have told Z this, also.

“I know how to divide fractions,” he tells me chirpily after I pick him up from the friend’s house where he has spent the afternoon. “I asked MJ to show me.”

“The Korean kid?”

“Yeah. He’s good at maths. He was kind of busy, actually. He had to help both me and K.”

We find the worksheet. I start to cook. I realise he has written nothing.

“What’s the problem?” I ask, wearily.

“I can’t remember how to do it.”

“The number you divide by, turn upside down and multiply,” I say, helpfully.

“Stop saying that,” he says.

“It’s the rule for dividing fractions,” I say.

“I know THAT,” he says balefully. “I’ve forgotten how to multiply them.”

“Well,” I say, writing down a sample sum.

“Why are you writing that down?” he asks me accusingly. “Why aren’t you helping me with my homework?”

I take a deep breath. “I am writing down a sum so I can show you how to do it.”

“You know why I don’t like doing fractions?” he asks, heatedly. “Because I have a LIFE. And a SOCIAL LIFE. And I want to get through this AS QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE.”


We stare at the worksheet.

“The thing about dividing fractions,” I begin confidently. “Is that they get, umm…”

Bigger? Is that right? Can that possibly be right? Surely dividing makes things smaller, not bigger?

I begin again. “It’s like negative numbers, ummm, they get, ummm, they don’t behave like you’d expect them, because when you, ummm….”

I pause for thought. “OK. Let’s imagine we’re dividing a fifth by a tenth. The answer is going to be, umm… err…”


“OK, so if we were doing it as decimals, what would a fifth be and what would a tenth be?”

“0.2 and 0.1,” he says.

“Exactly!” I say. “So if we divide 0.2 by 0.1 the answer would be, ummm…. Whereas if we multiply, the answer, ummm…”

He looks at me irritably. “You can’t actually do this, can you, mum?”

“Percentages!” I say. “What’s a fifth and a tenth as percentages?”

“20% and 10%.”

“Exactly! And 20% divided by 10% is, umm…”

His voice drips with a sarcasm not entirely appropriate for his age.

“I think the answer you are looking for is ‘two’.”

It gets shouty. Quelle bloody surprise.

Or, as a friend of mine puts it, “They should just call homework ‘shouty time’.”

21 Comments

  1. Ah-hahahahahaha! And haha again. I always wondered how homework was done in normal families.
    My Dad did maths at university and took great delight in working stuff out in his head and telling us the answers. And he used to race the calculator too. It was so bloody annoying.
    I can’t believe Z didn’t use the standard excuse — why do I have to do this stuff anyway? Isn’t that what calculators are for?

  2. Amy says:

    Math is supposed to be fun for the challenge of it. That’s what I learned by unschooling. But I know too many people who hate to challenge themselves, but I also see people push themselves off a cliff trying for other peoples expectations. Either way, you have to think of math as a game that gets harder and harder I guess.

    • Theodora says:

      I think maths can be fun, and the challenge can be fun. He can genuinely enjoy maths games, and problems. But, while he’s in the school environment, I also think it’s a good challenge for him to be slung a worksheet on something he has no idea how to do (he wouldn’t be doing those sums at his age in a UK government-run school) and, erm, kind of rise to it… But, yes, we’ve talked about maths and how we’re going to cover it as we return to unschooling, and we are going to try and make it fun. Though I do also believe that there are things like pi, Pythagoras &c that should be learnt as part of one’s cultural heritage/knowledge base.

  3. Scott says:

    and now I see some difficulities with schooling on the road… someday, when I have my own kids, I’d love to take them on the road… perhaps I’ll buy some “math for dummies” type books and load them on the Kindel before I depart LOL

    • Theodora says:

      Err, yes! What I had been doing is just playing online maths games and making him do the odd test paper or challenge paper that he’d have to sit at 11 to see that he tested out at the top level by UK gov’t standards, plus doing some practical things like “we are in the Northern Territory, speed limit’s 135kph, 300k to go, when do we arrive” or “what do you want as pocket money? £1, $1.75 or 30,000 Vietnam dong?” and some fun stuff that came up in conversation. Now he’s in school, and they appear to be, erm, challenging both him and me. I was pretty confident in my ability to recall under-11 maths, with the exception of rhombuses and parallelograms. But with no internet, and fractions to divide, it all went horribly wrong…

  4. I don’t envy this situation at all! Even if we were’t unschooling, I’d be no help at all with math homework. I was horrible at math in school and am a complete failure with numbers, and I turned out ok, right? Good luck with that Theodora!!

    • Theodora says:

      Yep! Who needs fractions in this day and age?! That said, I just asked him across the table to divide and multiply some fractions, and he did it, so here’s hoping we do not go through this again.

  5. Snap says:

    Pray you’re not still out there wandering around by the time Physics rears it’s nasty head. Your account of shouty time brought back memories…thanks, Not! ;) It wouldn’t matter if you were firmly planted in the suburbs or trekking around Asia, you’d still encounter the same problems…except, possibly, in your situation, your neighbours mightn’t understand what you’re yelling about.

    • Theodora says:

      Damn straight! I was so bloody embarrassed when I bumped into the yoga lady from the house next door. Been told off by her once for having a friend round for late night beers and being, well, noisier than is expected in the rice fields (no music, just, you know, laughing, at, shock horror, midnight). And then, I am pretty damn sure she has no kids, so has absolutely no idea what “shouty time” could possibly be, or how anyone could get so heated about fractions. Embarrassed? Oh yeah. Also, as I am sure you can imagine, the Balinese never shout at their kids about anything, ever.

      Seriously, I think the science stuff is going to be the major tie to school rather than unschool. I have taught him all the science I know (not a lot, did one science subject to 16), learnt some to keep up with him unschooling, and am now on the flummoxed end of things, plus cannot provide a lab. I had kind of hoped I could cope with the maths for a bit longer. Though, clearly, he will have the sense to ask one of his peers rather than his parents for advice in such arcane matters.

      Last night he opened — by choice! — a maths book my mother had given me to work from with him. At a page on time and distance graphs, to discuss. We discussed. You can imagine which of us was like “Well, look, the line’s going up, so he’s clearly struggling up hill. And there it goes down really fast, so that’s him running down the hill to a full stop. And that flat line must be him travelling on the flat.” And which of us was like, “I don’t think that’s how you read a time and distance graph….”

  6. Nicole says:

    Thank you for posting this. So good to hear this is common routine! We’re multiplying and dividing fractions too, and I’ve finally got them figured out, so let me know if you need more help. Haha! I’d really love to trust that unschooling math would eventually cover everything they need but man, it’s hard to have complete faith.

    • Theodora says:

      Oh yep. Shouty homework, like shouty supermarket shop, is one of those experiences that every parent has in common. It’s funny, really. When you see folk doing it and you haven’t had a kid you think, “Oh, I’ll never do that…” Then you do. We all do… You are by no means alone. Not all of us, however, do the shouting when surrounded by yoga-head neighbours seeking the serenity of the rice fields…

  7. Rachel says:

    ha ha ha do they print ‘maths for dummies’ in spanish?? Although my 10 year old is technically a year ‘behind’ the UK system in yr 5 here in Spain (she would be yr 6 in English primary) she is also doing dividing fractions and decimals – in spanish of course. ‘Numbers are numbers Mum’ she says totting them up in her head writing no workings ;) Luckily Dad is the economics grad and Mum just gets to help with the lengua – spanish literacy *joy*
    I’ve often envisioned the smug smiles on the teachers’ faces of an evening as I sit with the dictionary translating some mindless reading book…

  8. This post was too funny! It might sound slightly ridiculous, but one of the biggest things I fear about eventually becoming a parent is that I’ll be called on to help with homework.

    It’s just that I have an awful memory and remember very little from my primary and secondary education. Now, if a kid wanted to chat about literary theory, I’d be ecstatic, but don’t ask me about fractions or photosynthesis or what purpose a pancreas serves! :P

    • Theodora says:

      Now, I remembered photosynthesis. That and the periodic table are about the sum total of my science memories. Kristeva et al are a distant memory, but the good thing is you can actually chat with your kid about that stuff if you are interested in it, and it will be a good chat too..

      And, err, yeah. Homework screws you up. It’s not as bad as the scream/eat/shit/sleep/scream/eat/sleep/shit/scream period of the first few weeks, but, erm, it’s certainly a special moment.

  9. WanderMom says:

    This post makes me so happy to have my math-science-geek husband in the fam.
    My stock answer to all of the above (which we’ve been through a lot lately since B is working on multiplying + dividing fractions) is: “Ask your Dad”.
    Whew!

    • Theodora says:

      Well, I’ve been worrying about this as we need to start unschooling again in a coupla weeks. Friends in the UK recommend http://www.mathletics.co.uk. Am going to try and negotiate some sort of deal whereby he plays Mathletics for half an hour before he plays anything else online, and hopefully t’interweb will do it for me. Fingers crossed, eh?

  10. LOL!! i loathe fractions. and i am really impressed by how CALM you were.

    • Theodora says:

      Calm is not, entirely, I think how the neighbours would have described it. There was a degree of bellowing, which, perhaps does not come through in the piece…

  11. Don’t you wish they had a book for parents with all the answers. I can’t do that fraction thing either. Before it gets bad I stop and eat pizza, then wait for another day. I guess teaching is tough everywhere at times.

    • Theodora says:

      Yeah. We’re about to revert to unschooling. And I’ve cut a deal whereby he does Mathletics on the computer before he starts gaming, so hopefully I’ll only have to explain the odd bit of stuff. At least when you’re unschooling you can prepare what you’re going to unteach.

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