I saw the above on my 16-year-old’s desk while putting away some laundry the other day. Behind it were seven sheets filled with math problems, 102 of them in all, and, despite the teacher’s admonition not to put it off till the week before school starts, every page was pristine. I asked her about it and she said, yeah, she hadn’t worked on a single problem. When I read aloud to her the part where the teacher says to work a problem or two a day beginning in June, she said what my golf buddy says about those ubiquitous signs near the clubhouse, ABSOLUTELY NO CARRY-ON BEVERAGES ALLOWED:

”It’s only a suggestion,” according to both of them.

Of course nerdy dad took the packet to the dining room table and perused the problems. I knew how to do some of them, and others I didn’t even understand the vocabulary in the instruction. Maybe once I knew the difference between an even and an odd function. If so, no longer. No doubt the Venn Diagram of “problems I can solve” and “problems Lydia might ask about if she ever gets down to business” are circles basically tangent to each other.

Here’s one I could do even if the vocab was a little cloudy to me:

Solve the following inequality by factoring and making a sign chart: x^2 - 16 > 0.

Well, factoring the expression yields (x + 4)(x - 4). So it equals 0 when x is 4 or -4. My substitute for whatever a “sign chart” might signify is just to test values that fall within three segments of a number line: left of -4, right of 4, and between 4 and -4. Negative 5 and positive 5, for example, both yield 9, a number that satisfies the inequality. But zero yields -16: thumbs down on that. So the inequality is satisfied for x < -4 or x > 4. Pretty sure she’ll know how to do that one.

I remember when I first had to do problems like these in math class. I passionately hated it. This business of factoring seemed abstruse agony until, having one day consulted my dad about homework I couldn’t do, he happened to say something like, “Algebra is just arithmetic generalized.” This for me put a different light on, say, “the difference between squares is the product of the sum and the difference of their respective bases.” Just shoot me! But, my dad illustrated, suppose you are in a meeting and someone needs to know what 63 x 57 is. It’s nice that this happens to be (60 + 3) x (60 - 3), because that means the product is 60 squared minus 3 squared, and you can supply the answer about 3 seconds before someone with a calculator confirms that, yes, it’s 3591. People, including maybe your boss, will look at you as if you’re some kind of prodigy, and you can if you want stare mystically into the distance in the manner of Albert Einstein. But it’s just basic algebra.

Despite what the wingnuts say, I’m really pleased by what I can tell about the education my kids are receiving in the Minneapolis public schools. Lydia, who will be in eleventh grade, knows as much math now as I did when I graduated high school. And what about a teacher who gives out a packet of work over summer vacation *and encourages the kids to email her if they have any questions*?

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