5th grade math: personal essay and catharsis

Now, I did tell you all in my post about grant budgets that math wasn’t my strong suit, though I am capable of using Excel and even some complex formulas—algebra is alright in a tightly controlled environment, but I’d never want to meet it on a dark night in a blind alley.

But today, my fifth-grader sought my help on his math homework, and like anyone suffering from PTSD, I found myself reverting to that angry girl who shook her fists at the gods who would have created anything as inexplicable as math. My blood pressure increased, my jaw clenched, and I read the problem aloud, over and over, hoping that somehow the words would reveal the secret the worksheet was looking for. I tried to hide my anxiety from my child, not wanting to taint him with my own math-dread, but when I got a call from my dear sister-in-law (and friend), I couldn’t keep my voice lowered.

“Wait, Ana, wait. I know I haven’t talked to you in weeks; your spouse could be dying; you could have lost your job; the big earth quake could have hit the Bay Area, but let me read you this math question of Liam’s and see if you can understand it!

So readers, I drag you into this twisted homework assignment as well. I ask you to read these words and see if you can make heads or tails of them. Are you ready? Take a deep breath. Steel yourselves. Here’s the “clue” to the “number puzzle” (why do they try to make it seem like a great game by calling it a puzzle? They aren’t fooling anyone!)

“This number of tiles will make only one rectangle.”rectangle2 Then it gives two blanks to fill in. Then underneath it says: “What other numbers fit this clue?”

Um, didn’t it say will make only one rectangle? It’s established that I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed when it comes to math, but how could you have multiple correct numbers when it’s making “only one” rectangle? Or are they saying that it will make a rectangle that is only one tile wide? Or is it saying that it couldn’t be divided up to make two rectangles if you were to split up the tiles? And hold on, are the tiles even square? (There’s no definition here of what a tile is.) Is the answer infinite? Shouldn’t my son just draw an ∞ ?

By this time I’m curled in a fetal position on the floor, typing with my toe. Sigh. 5th grade math.

12 thoughts on “5th grade math: personal essay and catharsis

  1. Sometimes seemingly bad homework is actually good . And sometimes it really is bad, and yet can become good for the student anyway. My son (4th grade) recently brought home a pattern recognition assignment. The only trouble was that some of the sequences had not established a pattern by the end of the item, or had multiple correct answers. But out of about 12 items, probably 8 were not seriously flawed.

    Each answer however, had a letter associate with it. And getting them all right spelled out something recognizable. The instructions did not seem to indicate that this was intentionally an abstract problem solving assignment. But regardless of intent, that is what it became… It was a good exercise in establishing what is knowable. And then leveraging that data to solve those items that were not reliably solvable by themselves.

    One thing is for sure… Life is full of crappy instructions and unreasonable problems. Probably the best thing we can do is to give our kids the tools they need to handle such things.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I arrived by way of the link in the previous comment. For the record, my piece is really intended to ask parents not to (for example) link this homework question up in Facebook and use it as evidence that math education is in decline.

    That said, this is kind of a crummy question. I think I get what it’s getting at, but it’s not clear at all how you would know if your are not immersed in classroom mathematics on a daily basis. Ugh. You seem to have gotten good help from your readers. This makes me happy.

    I stand by my claim that writing a note to the teacher saying, “We spent some time trying to make sense of this question and there just isn’t enough context for me to do so” is a better alternative than curling up into a ball and letting a crummy question demoralize you.

    Anyway, best wishes in your adventures in elementary (and soon—middle school!) math. I also have a fifth grader this year. I know the stresses of homework time (but for us, the stressful bit is the writing, which the boy does at a snail’s pace!)


    • Thank you for the comment Christopher, and for your input. I was thinking it would be fun to send this whole post and following comments to my son’s teacher–he might find it really interesting, and be glad that one little comment sparked such robust thought and inquiry. I certainly wasn’t expecting that when I wrote the post.

      Just for the record, I’m not actually demoralized, nor in a fetal position…I’m a writer, and wanted to tell a personal story in a funny way in order to entertain, so of course I exaggerate a bit in order to make folks smile, (and hopefully) find enjoyment in my personal pain and agony. (Again, a little poetic license here.)


      • Ha!

        Humor. Right. I remember what that was like. I only wish that more people complaining about their kids’ math homework could remember that too!

        Best wishes to you and your fifth grader. Pretty soon, that homework will be all their responsibility and you can sit back, eat chocolate and sip red wine (if you’re into those sorts of things).

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I smell a trick question. Assume that:
    1) As Mara correctly posits, “tiles” are in fact square;
    2) As Jeff correctly posits, “rectangles” can be 1 tile wide;
    3) “Tall” rectangles and “wide” rectangles of equal dimensions are in fact DIFFERENT rectangles (i.e., a 2×3 rectangle is different than a 3×2 rectangle);
    Then the answer is 1. 1 tile is the only number of tiles that can create exactly one rectangle. The “trick” here being that squares are in fact, by definition, also rectangles. (A rectangle is ANY quadrilateral with four right angles.)


    • Oh, and if assumption #3 above is incorrect (if a 2×3 rectangle and 3×2 rectangle are considered the same), then the answer would be any prime number (1, 2, 3, 5, 7, etc.) and the rectangle would always have a width of 1 and a length of whatever prime was chosen.
      That may be the answer they’re fishing for with “What other numbers fit this clue?”


      • Well, I just have to say, that regardless of the real answer, I love all the thought that went on here–it feels almost existential. I wonder if I should send a link to the post and following discussion to my son’s teacher…


      • Indeed. Shortly after posting, I realized that this was probably less about geometry and more about tricking kids into thinking about prime numbers without scaring them with that term.


  4. I’m not suggesting this is a good math item. But sometimes these things are only accessible to mortals if you were in class where the teacher did examples that showed you the terminology and rules. (I’m guessing in this case, they are talking about square ceramic tiles, and requiring that you are laying them on a flat surface, and that you use every tile.)

    It sounds, from your description of the question, like any like they are looking for numbers like 1, 2, 3, 5, and 7. A count of tiles that can be placed together to make a rectangle, but not configured differently to make a second rectangle of a different shape (i.e. 12 tiles can make 2×6 or 3×4 rectangles, so would be disqualified.) Since any number of tiles can be placed in a line to make a rectangle, correct answers would include any counts of tiles that cannot be used to make a rectangle except in a (1 x TotalTiles) configuration.

    This kind of question would make me nervous on a test though. Because it is the kind of item where correct answers are often counted incorrect when the scorer forgets that 3 tiles in a row in fact make a rectangle.


  5. This is when having a civil engineer for a father comes in handy. I just send my kids to Dad.

    Also: That problem is impossible.

    Also: So much of this made me laugh. Because girl, I KNOW.


    • The funny thing is, Alex was a math major until his junior year of college, and you know what he did when he got home and I shoved the problem under his nose? He GOOGLED to find the answer! Then he tossed the paper aside, saying, “This isn’t math!”


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