An evening ride on the A train


I was in New York City for a conference recently. I arrived at JFK airport on a Monday evening and took public transportation into the city. I observed the following scene.

At about 8:30 p.m., a mother and her (roughly) 6-year old twin girls board the train and sit quite near me.

Mom opens the first girl’s backpack to check whether her homework has been completed.

Child 1: I did it. Oh…on that one, I forgot to write the 6.

[Child 1 proceeds to talk aloud and hold up her fingers]

These are my daughter's fingers. I did not photograph the children on the subway.
These are my daughter’s fingers. I did not photograph the children on the subway.

Child 1: Two and four is…1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6!

Mom checks a couple of other things and puts the materials back in Child 1’s backpack. She opens Child 2’s backpack.

Mom: Why don’t you have a math book?

Child 2: I do! It’s Go Math!

Mom: Where is it?

Child 2: At school. Teacher says it never leaves school.

Mom: So you get worksheets?

Child 2: Uh huh.

Mom: What’s the point of having a math book, then? Oh well.

She flips through the worksheets, but does not discuss their content with the children. The worksheets appear to her (and to me) to be a disconnected jumble, which the child has completed.

About ten minutes later, the girls are acting up a little bit. Nothing major, but they are getting loud and silly. They are clearly getting on Mom’s last nerve. Mom has expressed to them how tired she is.

Another ten minutes pass, with the girls just barely keeping it together. They get off the train at their stop.

So what do we learn?

A major goal of my writing here and in my book is to help parents notice opportunities to support their children’s mathematical development, and to take advantage of these opportunities.

Traditionally as parents, we look over our children’s homework and keep an eye our for errors. We help our children when they are stuck. If everything is correct and complete, we move on. All of that is good. It is important to help our children when they are stuck. It is important to check their homework. All good.

I want to point out the opportunity this mother had when her daughter was talking about the neglected six.

Child 1 said, “I forgot to put the 6,” and then demonstrated the relevant addition problem on her fingers.

One way to seize this opportunity is to say, “Oh, good! I like that you showed how you know 2 and 4 is 6. What are some other ways you can make 6?”

That conversational technique will bear fruit with kids 95% of the time. When you notice an idea, praise the child for expressing it and ask a follow-up question, the child will nearly always answer that question. If the question suggests that there are multiple answers, the child will usually keep thinking beyond their first idea.

Continuing the conversation would provide the mother in my story with two things:

(1) Increased mathematics thinking on the part of her children, and

(2) less misbehavior later on.

Yes it takes energy to carry on a conversation of any kind with your children when everyone is tired. But it takes less energy to do that than to keep them quiet when they don’t want to be.

I understand, of course, that not everyone knows how to do this. That is what we’re working on here.

Starting the conversation

This is an example of starting a conversation by listening and asking follow up questions.

Some conversations parents initiate. Others children initiate. When children initiate them, the conversation only moves forward if we listen and ask questions.

I will restate an important conversational move in this scenario:

Oh, good! I like that you showed how you know 2 and 4 is 6. What are some other ways you can make 6?

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