I’ve been doing homeschool math experiments all summer with my older son. I started division in April, when I realized it’s a third-grade topic that his third-grade classroom was not going to get to. At this point, we’ve been doing long division for six months and he still can’t do it.

I’ve sat next to him for every long division problem. We used Kumon, and School Zone and random downloads. Nothing works. Today I slammed my hand on the desk and said, “Focus on what you’re doing! You just did this yesterday!”

I broke a lot of blood vessels in my fingers. Not all of them, but just enough so that all day I have this bruised feeling on my hand.

This seems like a good time to tell you that my first job out of college was at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. I was an arbitrage clerk and I used hand signals to tell traders on phones what prices were trading in the open-outcry pits. I did not get the job for any skill; traders in the pit wanted someone good to look at.

So I flashed numbers with my fingers for about three months, and then the Berlin Wall came down. The markets went up and down so fast and I couldn’t remember if numbers were higher or lower than previous numbers.

That day I was fired, and that day I realized that I had a disability. People who struck me as uneducated and stupid were able to keep track of what numbers meant in a market going up and down.

Today my son did the same long-division routine over and over again and he could not see he was learning a system to solve a problem. And everything came back to me. My own math gap, the Wall falling, and the teachers who told me I wasn’t trying my hardest and left me bruised.

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18 replies
  1. MBL
    MBL says:

    Your honesty and willingness to open yourself up to criticism is staggering. I am in awe.

    I realized that my husband and 5 year old daughter were Aspies at the beginning of this year and searching for females with Asperger’s is how I found your blog. I recommend it to everyone in the OT’s waiting room.

    I just did a quick search and found http://www.gifteddevelopment.com/PDF_files/Two-edged%20sword%20of%20compensation.pdf I am assuming giftedness in your son and, therefore, searched for 2e. Some standouts when I searched ‘division’ were: Nonsequentiality is another common ingredient in the profiles of learning disabled children and adults. They do not learn in a step-by-step fashion like most learners. If they know what the goal is, they will find their own route there through their compensation mechanisms. Their worst nightmare is “show your work” since they usually don’t take the traditional series of steps from beginning to end. They need to see the big picture in their minds and be allowed to figure out on their own how to get to the result.
    For example, long division is one of the most difficult sequential tasks for nonsequential children. Some learning-disabled individuals never get it in the traditional way. I advise teachers to put a simple divisor, dividend, and quotient on the board and instruct their visual-spatial learners to figure out how to get that quotient. If they succeed, the teacher gives them a harder problem to see if their method works. While these students invent their own methods of long division, the teacher teaches the other children the more traditional, sequential approach.
    Twice exceptional students are more likely to be successful if they are taught to their strengths. After the age of 9, conscious compensation strategies are needed, as well as modifications in teaching.
    Visualization is a wonderful tool. Many gifted individuals with learning disabilities have vivid imaginations and can visualize better than those who are not disabled. Visualization techniques can be taught in every subject area.
    One of the most fascinating aspects of twice exceptional learners is that they learn complex material easily, but struggle with easy, sequential tasks. This has been described in Thomas West’s (1991) book, In the Mind’s Eye. They need advanced concepts, even though they have not mastered the easier work. Acceleration is often more effective than focusing on remediating weaknesses.

    Sorry for the length, I’m a very poor editor.
    On a personal experience note, my daughter was pretty advanced with her math skills by the age of two, but hasn’t really accelerated much since then. She has never wanted to actively practice it and likes to turn subtraction problems into addition so she can do them more easily. However, when she has a personal stake in getting the answer right, she miraculously figures it out quickly. When she was 3 or 4 we made cookies and I put 5 on a plate and asked how many we each got if we divided them equally. She said she didn’t know, maybe 2? I said okay, you take two and I’ll have the rest. Her eyes widened and she blurted “Two and a half! Two and a half!!!!” She is about to turn six and if I asked her was half of five was, she would automatically say she didn’t know.

    Does your son have a visual currency that might help? Maybe cuisnaire rods would appeal to him. And there are always video games.

    Since we were late to the diagnosis table/therapy route, we are doing a number of things concurrently, OT, reflex integration, super-flex, vision therapy, and may start listening therapy. She has made astonishing strides and seems capable of doing this many things at once (although I constantly second guess myself.) I am “in charge” of most of these things (insofar as the parent can be over the child.) However, there are certain aspects of vision therapy that her lack of cooperation and obstinance absolutely pushes me over the fucking edge and I risk completely losing it. Fortunately husband manages to have infinite patience in this area and devised an ingenious way to make it more fun, read “silly.” Given your history, you might really consider washing your hands of all things math. Could the Farmer sneak lessons into calculating how much food the pigs need, how many eggs each chicken would need to lay for a certain production level, what volume of milk is needed from the goats to ensure a profit?

    I’m not sure what resources WI has, but the 2e sub group of MCGT (Minnesota Council of Gifted and Talented) can be an invaluable resource. Also, there is a home school group that I’ve heard is a great resource also. One of the members has http://www.homeschooldiner.com/index.html which covers darn near everything including 2e.

    Again, sorry for the convoluted novella. I wish you all the best.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      The stuf about long-division. That is so helpful. He cannot lean it sequentially. I wrote down the steps, I wrote six steps for each time he divides in each problem. And still he can’t do it. He forgets where he is.

      But you know what? When I go out to the car and I forget something and then I have to run back in and get it, my husband always comes in with me. Because he has spent too much time sitting in the car waiting for me while I have forgotten what I went in the house for. Sometimes I just stand in the house. Stuck. And then I start doing something else and I forget people are waiting for me.Or sometimes I think of something else to get in the house and I come back to the car with the wrong thing.

      I do so much of my life in the same way that my son does long division. I just didn’t see it til you laid out the issues for me. So thank you.

      Also, this makes it really clear to me that I’m not teaching math. i don’t know what I’m capable of teaching the kids. Blogging maybe. Or how to subscribe to 20 magazines and read them all each month, in the bathtub.


      • MBL
        MBL says:

        Your tone right now is coming across as very sad and defeated to me. I truly hope that I am misinterpreting that.

        Scads of readers flock to your blog to learn how to blog because, as you point out, proper usage of social media is becoming increasingly vital. So, yes, his having a live-in world class blogging tutor is probably in his favor.

        Regarding magazines in the tub. That’s easy too. While multi-tasking may be on its way out and mindfulness of the moment is en vogue, you are managing to combine a restorative body/soul activity that can relaxing or reinvigorating depending upon how you draw the bath, with work that can be confirmation of or stimulating for new ideas depending upon the material. Given your prodigious talent for synthesis (I think that is what draws most of your blog readers,) for you to impart that to your children would be the greatest gift. There is some “scale of learning” that lists synthesis as the highest level of thought. Many schools only strive for low-level regurgitation since the wide range of ability, red tape, and funding issues interfere.

        I agree with the other posters, table long division (for a while or indefinitely) and play to both of your strengths (for a while or indefinitely.) I suspect that the Asperger’s factor is both a positive and a negative. On one hand, you may better know what he is likely to be feeling and experiencing and on the other, you might assume that they are the same as you when they aren’t. But your posts on Asperger’s in the workplace that start with something like “the reason I am qualified to give advice is because I innately suck at this stuff and had to break it down step by step to figure out how to survive,” show the positive aspects of why you, in particular, are up to the task.

        I am reminded of the theory that male Aspies tend to be little professors and female Aspies little philosophers. I try to keep that in mind regarding my husband’s and daughter’s interactions.

        I hope you are able to find a peaceful place for yourself and your family. Most parents stress over their decisions, but I think your particular situation is even more complicated than most for so very many reasons. Not the least of which is your willingness to struggle in such an open and public fashion. Again, I am humbled by your honesty and bravery.

        End heartfelt fan-girl novella.

  2. Amy Lynn Andrews
    Amy Lynn Andrews says:

    And herein lies one huge truth about homeschooling (and parenting in general):

    Often, it’s more about me than it is my kids!

    I’m always amazed at home much I’m learning, growing, getting in touch with my “inner child,” being refined, working out my own junk, and all the while my children just seem to go along their happy way and what feels like mountains in my life are just hiccups in theirs.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I am starting to see that — that it’s more about the parents than the kids. But how embarrassing. Isn’t it? I mean, my pretense is that we’re doing it for the kids. And then I obsess about myself.

      This is a big surprise to me. But I like that I’m not the only one in the muddle.


      • Amy Lynn Andrews
        Amy Lynn Andrews says:

        Oh my goodness, I am QUEEN of The Muddle. I’ve camped out here so much, I flat out just built a house. Might as well get comfortable being totally and completely undone. That’s my theory.

        Oh no, you are not alone by a long shot.

  3. Lori
    Lori says:

    If all you are going to do is replicate school at home, you’re going to miss out on the benefits of homeschooling.

    If you’re really interested in raising self-directed learners, maybe you need to take a chunk of time to do some research and come up with a set of strategies to move in that direction.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Lori, I have been really nice in the comments section up til now. But now I think I know enough about homeschool to argue. (Look, it only took me a month!)

      It is preposterous to tell a parent who homeschools that he or she should do some research. Because the parent had to do a ton of research to come to the decision to homsechool, and then the whole process of homeschooling is research and clinical investigation (at home) and then more research.


  4. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    Well, first of all, I think this is what great writing looks like. Short, to the point with enough details, and well-structured with closure and impact at the end. I’m not an ‘expert’ reviewer but those are my impressions.
    I think this post shows one of the advantages of getting older – getting more wise, having insight, or however else it may be described – by being able to draw on past life experiences. You were able to recall and relate your experiences to those of your son – “And everything came back to me. The special ed math, the Wall falling, the teachers who told me I wasn’t trying my hardest and left me bruised.”. And that’s a good thing and a breakthrough because it’s the first step to finding something that works for both of you.

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      Mark, I was about to make a similar comment. It is so heartbreakingly beautiful!

      I am just reading it over and over again.

      Funny thing is that it’s beautiful and practical. I am learning something at the same time that I’ll apply in the future.

      Penelope, oh my goodness! It’s hard to say something. I just want to give you a hug and smile really big.

  5. Darlene
    Darlene says:

    I experience the same issues with my son (ADHD diagnosed – no meds) and yet, when I tell him I have a bag of candy with X pieces in it and we have 6 kids over today – he will shout out that each kid gets 16 pieces (or whatever). And I am struck – that he is an idiot savant. How can he do such a complicated equation in his 7 year old brain, but yet can not sit down and do a row of math problems? How can he not see the process that the problem on the paper is the same as the bag of candies (I don’t feed them candy regularly ;-)?

    Anyway, my point is maybe if you put it in terms of feeding his goats or pigs – and put the math in terms of his life – that it is somehow different than sitting down on paper and doing the problem.

    I don’t know how or why it works, although I am going to learn as our journey continues.

    I love the path you decided to take, homeschooling – and I feel like I should be doing the same thing, and have felt that way since before he was born.



  6. Zellie
    Zellie says:

    I feel for you Penelope. Long division can be difficult because the presentation is abstract. It’s difficult for some kids to see it for what it really means. Somebody needs to figure out a way to show it that will reach your son. That fine tutor should be able to think of something.

  7. Erin
    Erin says:

    Hi Penelope,
    Thanks for your honesty in writing about your homeschooling experience.
    Your son’s brain may not be ready for long division. And this may be why his Third Grade teacher wasn’t going to cover it because many Third Grade brains are not ready for this very difficult skill. The most wonderful teaching techniques in the world may not help a child to learn something before they are ready. When my oldest son was 2 (he’s now 11), I decided that he needed to be potty trained before his younger brother was born. But he abhorred accidents and didn’t have the muscle control to prevent them so I put him back in diapers. We tried again in a few months and it worked. What does this have to do with division? My experience tells me that almost all children can learn what they need when they are ready. As homeschoolers, we can afford to give them the space to learn when it is appropriate for them.
    But, we often get caught up in outcome-based learning. This type of learning is often skill based and the skill is chosen by the grown-up. The grown-up then uses this skill to compare the child to their peers. (hmmmm….this sounds like traditional school) This is learning from the outside-in. Some children will excel under these conditions but many, many will not.
    We can teach our children to learn from the inside-out. We can teach them a love of learning and also how to learn and this will be way more important than WHAT they learn. At our house, we spend a lot of time reading good books alone and together, looking at art, making art, listening to music, making music, playing outside and generally learning to look at the world with a sense of wonder. I must confess that I am not an unschooler- we have structured work time every school day. I am from a family of educators and my kids are under a lot of scrutiny and I guess I’m just too big of a chicken. But I try to read about unschooling to keep that paradigm in view. Two good resources: A Call to Brilliance by Resa Steindel Brown and also the blog of one of your commenters, Lori, which is also a treasure trove of information concerning authentic learning.
    Also, we like to play card games when math gets overwhelming. There are a lot of card games that have a math component so learning can still occur. Also, check out khanacademy.org for an excellent math resource.

  8. kevin
    kevin says:

    Is there a reason we are super worried about long division? I graduated a top 15 university with a degree in finance, and I NEVER USED LONG DIVISION.

    Why are we stressing about this subject, when we know your son is learning disabled? See Buckingham: Now, go find your strengths. See Robinson: The Element.

    Co-sign the commenter who said “Why are you replicating school at home?” Home schooling is a mis-nomer.

    Enjoy the flexibility you have by taking control of your son’s education. Look at all the things you have written about careers and what is important in the work place. Division wasn’t one of them!

    EQ, team work, problem solving (real world), and Entrepreneurial thinking. Bing!@

  9. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    Hi Penelope!

    I have two suggestions for your math problem.

    First, look at Math-U-See for a math curriculum. The lessons are on a DVD, which is why I picked it in the first place, knowing that my Asperger’s son would have an easier time focusing on a video than he would in focusing on me teaching. I recommend it very highly.

    Second, forget about long division. It’s good to know the theory, but once you start Algebra, no one will ever ask you to do it again. That’s what calculators are for. ;-)

    And welcome to homeschooling. I’ve been on this journey for almost 12 years now.


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