Thursday, April 26, 2012

Conquering Math One Video at a Time

Math has been my enemy. 
You’d think I’d like it because Baba’s a physicist with a Ph.D. in applied mathematics and Mama was a physics major and computer programmer way back in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.  But he did physics to please his father when he would have rather studied politics.  She was a Chinese immigrant who could speak the language of math and science when English was difficult.
Growing up, Mama often intoned, “Math and science is the way to make it in the world!  All my English and Political Science major friends ended up as secretaries and selling shoes.”
But math always felt like an enemy to be conquered rather than a friend to be embraced.  And with my parents, I had no choice but to conquer it.

So I learned Geometry in Chinese (math that needs literacy!) when Baba took a sabbatical in Beijing during my 9th grade.  When he moved us again 2nd semester of 11th grade, with the help of a math genius friend, I crammed a semester’s worth of Advanced Math into my brain in a week (my new class repeated all the material I’d learned first semester but the final was on the material I’d never covered).  I got a 97 on the final, losing 3 points because of a subtraction mistake.  Senior year I somehow scored a 4 on my AP Calculus test after getting a D- for my first quarter of Calculus (where I found that missing a whole semester of Advanced math had consequences).
Having vanquished high school math, I went to college and never did math again. . . unless you consider statistics math–it felt uncomfortably similar.  In my last grad-level stats class, the professor asserted we were learning stats 85% of working sociologists did not understand.  I joined that 85% despite taking the class.
Sadly, my kids have inherited my enemy relationship with math.
And I’ve somehow inherited my parents’ obsession that math is central to their futures.  Because if you don’t get 6th grade math, you won’t get 7th or 8th grade math, which means you’ll never get through high school math.  Not mastering high school math just might mean you won’t make it to college.
Enter the Khan Academy.
Sal Khan, a MIT/Harvard grad and hedge fund manager began tutoring his cousin in math online.  As other relatives wanted in, he created Youtube videos that became so popular he quit his job and founded the Khan Academy, which now boasts over 3100 video tutorials in math, science, finance, and now even arts and humanities.  Clickhere to hear Stephen Colbert interview him. Or listen to Sal describe his inspiring vision (20 minutes but well worth it):
After hearing about the Khan Academy on NPR and reading about it everywhere, I’ve hounded my kids to use the resource.  2 weeks ago, one finally did.  I sat with him asSal took us through the angle game, and we were off!
Tuesday he asked me to watch Khan Academy with him for our weekly special time.  We learned about probability, something despite 3 graduate level stats classes, I’ve never understood that well.
I love it!  I love that Sal explains things with humor, a little dorkiness, and can draw a quarter with a reasonable facsimile of George Washington.  The Khan Academy has become part of my son’s daily regime.  I’m thinking of asking him to go to the beginning (basic addition) and work through it all this summer.
Maybe with Sal’s help, math might become our friend, or even better, lover.
This first appeared on What She Said

Friday, April 20, 2012

Surpassed At Last

Two nights ago I attended a mandatory 2 hour Parent's Driver's Education class so Ling can someday get her license.  She was out with a friend, Scott was out at work, which meant that the younger 2 had to fend for themselves for dinner.

When I came home and found them and their dinnerware in front of the TV (seems like these days of April vacation at home that's the default), I noticed that there was something green in their bowls.
Not her brussels, but this is what they should
look like

"What did you make?" I asked Kai-Kai.

"Brussel sprouts," said she.

Hmmm. . . Pretty impressive that alongside the Annie's macaroni, she actually made a vegetable.  Even more impressive that the vegetable was Brussel sprouts.

I went upstairs, saw a few leaves still clinging to the cast iron pan and tasted.

YUM!  Those little leaves were the best tasting Brussel sprouts I'd ever eaten in my life.

I sought her out, "What did you do to those Brussel sprouts?  They're amazing!"

Eyes sparkling, so delighted she jumped around a bit, she said, "Only a tablespoon of butter, some oil and, can you guess the secret ingredient???"  Unable to hold the secret any longer, "SHALLOTS!"

Wow.  I begged her to make me some, which she kindly did.  More yum.

So I have finally been surpassed in cooking.  My child, at age 14, has invented a brussel sprouts recipe more delicious than any I've ever made.  This is what I've been waiting for since her birth. . .

On Tuesday our April vacation event was Mirror Mirror, the Snow White movie with Julia Roberts playing the evil queen who, as we all know, is obsessed with remaining unsurpassed in beauty.  I'm the opposite.  I feel sheer delight anytime a kid is better than me at anything, which happens increasingly often including:

  • Ling's piano skills (give Kai another 6 months and she'll beat me too)
  • Ren's Lego/Knex/any gadget engineering (by leaps and bounds, not even close--I only built square houses with my creativity showing in the color scheme of blocks) 
  • Height--both girls tower over me, Ren's got another year to catch up
  • Athletics--all 3 are far more skilled and active than I ever was as a child
Driving's coming soon.  From 2 hours of Parent Driver's Ed, it's clear that Ling already knows more about the current state of driving than I do (and probably ever did).

Surpassed at last, and it feels good.

Kai's Brussel Sprouts:

1 bag brussel sprouts, cut in half
1 Tbs. butter
1 Tbs. oil
1 large shallot, minced

Melt butter with oil over medium heat.  Add brussel sprouts and shallots, saute until sprouts are browned (but be careful not to burn the shallots--can add them later if worried)

Thursday, April 19, 2012

3 Reasons I Work For Money

I’m joining the Patheos posts on the Mommy wars, including Rebecca Cusey’s Beyond the Mommy-Wars Bumper Sticker,
“Can you cut your trip short and come home?” came the woeful voice over the phone on the first day of my 3rd business trip this spring.
“No, I can’t,” I said, “I’m sorry.”
“But I NEED you,” said the child. “You’ve got to come home and discipline (sibling’s name)!”
Enter a gazillion opportunities to feel guilty with even more judgments.
Tina Fey writes in Bossy Pants,
“The topic of working moms is a tap dance recital in a minefield.”
So join me as I kick-ball-change with trepidation. . .
First, I want to acknowledge that all mothers work (with the moms in The Nanny Diaries a rare exception)—carrying, bearing and raising kids takes WORK, and most of us are completely exhausted by it.
But I’ve also chosen to work for pay outside the home throughout my entire 16-years of mothering.  Here’s why:
1.  The money. Let’s just admit that those who can entertain the choice to stay home have the means to stay home.  There are plenty of working parents who wish they could stay home.  Many, if not most must labor to financially support their families.
With our first child, health issues meant my dream of children and my husband’s dream of graduate school collided.  So we did both.  He was willing to take out mega loans if I wanted to stay home with baby.  I wasn’t.  I worked 30 hours/week for family healthcare and to pay our living expenses.
After our 2nd child was born, my husband graduated and got a job with benefits.  Since then, he’s earned the greater proportion of our family income, but my income has still been more than helpful.  It enabled us to buy a ramshackle home in our community, send our daughter to preschool, and go out on cheap dates.  It allows us to give more generously.
2.  Because I want to. I enjoy working outside the home and ministering to those outside my family and neighborhood. . . a lot. I like working with men—which comes naturally in ministry but not as naturally in the mom world.  Work gives me chances to grow and learn and bring back interesting stories to the family.
Over the years, work’s been a place to experience my strengths—especially as my weaknesses have been so exposed in motherhood. (Despite begging God for the fruits of the Holy Spirit almost every morning, especially patience and self-control, I’m still waiting on those darn fruits.)
During the young kid years, when I often felt lonely and misunderstood in the mom world, my work colleagues also became my safest community—they let me be a struggling mother AND a gifted and valued fellow minister, fully dimensional in a way I often didn’t feel permission elsewhere.
3.  Because I think God has called me.  I was tempted to put this reason first so I’d look more spiritual as if I’ve just been obeying God all along, but I think God gives us choices and if I had wanted to stay home, I’m sure Jesus would have blessed that as well.
Over the years, I’ve sensed God’s invitation to work outside the home.  I bring something unique to the places God invites me to go, and to the people He graces me to meet.  Through both paid work and parenting, I’ve felt something of Frederick Buechner’s famous quote:
“Your calling in life is where your greatest passion meets the world’s greatest need.”
I’m hugely passionate about my kids but my kids aren’t my only passion.  Work and writing are ways I live out my other passions and try to meet some of the world’s needs.
As my child tried to convince me to fly home, or if that didn’t work, feel guilty about it, I resisted both the shortened and the guilt trip.  I said, “You have a perfectly capable parent at home who can help you with everything you want from me.”
The next day, I checked in and sure enough, my husband not only capably dealt with the kid chaos, but did a better job than I would have.
Now that was great work!
How have you balanced parenting with a calling inside or outside the home?
Why have you made the decisions you have made?  What’s good about your decisions?  What’s challenging?
Why is this topic one that feels like tap-dancing on a minefield?
This post first appeared in What She Said

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Driver's Ed Week

"Wow, here we go, walking our daughter to Driver's Ed," I said to Scott as we walked with Ling down the street.

"Just like kindergarten," he said.

"Another rite of passage. . . sniff,"

"Um, except I'm big enough to walk away from you guys and have nothing to do with you," said our 5'9 1/2" daughter who did NOT think this was a moment for sentimentality.

And I guess it wasn't.  Scott was in his running clothes about to take off on his run.  We accompanied her because we thought we had to pay the balance and attend a parent info session.  Happily, we don't have to pay the balance until after her 30 hours in class and 12 hours of personal driving instruction.  Unfortunately, the parent class is 2 hours and I'll go tomorrow night.

But still, it feels big to have a kid almost old enough to drive.

  • Driving means she'll be in charge of a heavy piece of equipment that can easily hurt her or others.  
  • Driving means she'll be capable of a new freedom and distance from the family. 
  • Driving means she'll be able to shuttle herself and her siblings to places I don't want to drive. . .


I didn't get my license until I was 20, a combination of my stubbornness about not wanting to take Driver's Ed (which wasn't required) and my mom's reluctance.  Despite my late age and great maturity, I was an awful driver at 20 and continue to be pretty iffy in my 40s.  In the past several years I've run our right side door into a parking meter (with a student--it was a parking lot with lots of standing meters), and backed the mini-van into our house (with my boss).   I think my terrible spatial-visual abilities and lack of awareness of anything physical (other than food) are to blame.

The driving school teacher said that after Ling gets her permit (on or near her 16th  birthday, May 19th), we should drive 5-6 hours with her so she gets the basics.  After all, she needs to at least be able to get the car from our house to the driving school (about 3 blocks).

I can't imagine being the person to teach her--there's a reason I haven't homeschooled my kids.  Teaching a skill where I'm competent at a C+ level seems not quite right.

"I hope that I take after Dad in driving," she said after returning from her first full day.

So do I honey, so do I.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

A Passé Post on the Hunger Games Movie

What does it mean that at the most scary point of The Hunger Games, my son left my side to go sit next to his father?

I’m sure you, like most of America, have already seen the movie (It’s made almost $303 million at this point).   We finally went last Saturday on Holy Easter because there was not one movie-sized slot over in the 3 weeks before then.  There was much weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth when I said:

1.     Ling couldn’t go to the midnight screening on the Thursday opening night because she couldn’t afford to be tired for school, and even more importantly, there was no way in the world I was going to stay up to pick her up.
2.     We couldn’t watch it for 2 weekends because of the 9 Beauty and the Beast performances
3.     They couldn’t cut school to see it
4.     I wanted to attend Maunday Thursday service instead of the Hunger Games

If by chance you are part of the 1% who’ve missed the hoopla around The Hunger Games, the movie is based on the first book of a trilogy by Suzanne Collins set in a future dystopian America.  After annihilation and nuclear holocaust, the oppressive Capitol subjugates its subjects by throwing annual Hunger Games, where its 12 districts each send a young male and female to fight to the death while the whole nation watches on TV.

It’s a dark, dark set of books.  My 3 kids and I have swallowed them whole.  Their paradox is that they’re startlingly violent, while ultimately preaching a message about power and peace. 

The kids have waited with bated breath for the movie to come out—following the casting of the leads, the production of the movie, all made convenient by my subscription to Entertainment Weekly.  (A very guilty pleasure, completely worth the 800 expiring frequent flier miles my sister used to give it to me!)

So finally, instead of fasting, praying, reflecting on the depths of what it meant for Jesus to lie dead in the grave, after they had finished folding and putting away laundry, the 5 saw the show.

Family comments afterwards:

·      Scott:  That was great!!  Finally a strong girl character
·      Ren:  Oh my gosh did you hear mom scream?  AAAH (imitation)
·      Kid 1:  I’m so mad, they cut ___ and ___ and ___ . 
·      Kid 2:  And ___ and ___ !  How could they? (can’t remember the specifics because I didn’t remember the scenes and characters who’d been cut.)
·      Kid 3:  Isn’t it interesting there were no famous actors or actresses
·      Me:  I think Woody Harrelson and Stanley Tucci are pretty famous.
·      Kids (in unison):  Who’re they?

Scott liked the movie enough that he’s taking whoever’s interested back to see it again tomorrow.  I won’t be there since I’ll go to a brunch instead.

It’ll be fine since I’d be sitting alone anyway.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Washing Fungus Feet: A Maunday Thursday Reflection

I knew Scott was going to wash my feet when he proposed because his good friend had done the same.  So I brought along 3 bars of LL Bean soap, the first presents Scott ever gave me (for Christmas when we weren’t even dating—I had that horrible “I didn’t get you a present because I didn’t want to presume our relationship is actually going to happen” reaction). 

We washed each other’s feet with LL Bean lily-of-the-valley scented soap as a symbol of how we wanted to serve one another in our marriage.

Fast forward 19 years to last night when we spent 10 minutes squabbling over who picked up the son from tae-kwon-do.  Neither wanted to, both with valid reasons, and we played chicken while our son waited downtown.

Serving is hard. . . despite vowing to serve each other (and others) through our marriage.
When Scott washed my feet on our engagement night, it wasn’t the first time I’d had my feet washed.  I’d participated in foot-washing ceremonies at youth group and church as well as campus fellowship events.  Always, during the exercise, the question came, “Which was easier, to serve or to be served?”
Most say it’s harder to be served.  Sitting with your feet in a bucket, someone gently rubbing soap on your toes, you become acutely aware of how your feet stink.  You notice the corns, callouses and bunions, the toenail that might be growing fungus since it’s turned thick, yellow and misshapen.  Feet aren’t the most attractive appendage, and having someone see, smell and touch them in all their bumpy reality feels oddly vulnerable.
So Peter jumps away in horror from Jesus and says, “You will never wash my feet!”
And Jesus responds, “Unless I wash your feet, you have no part with me.”
It’s hard to receive.  I resist going to Jesus with the dirty smelly parts of me because I want to pretend I’m not that bad.  If I let him see my callouses, corns, and fungus, not only do I have to see them myself, I also have to let him serve me—cleaning, healing, sometimes even performing major surgery.  Too often, I like my toenails the way they are—even if they’re yellow and misshapen.
But when I resist Jesus’s service, I also choose to have no part with him.  Jesus is a king who came to serve, and if I think I don’t have anything to receive, I get nothing.
In real life, I have a harder time serving than being served.  At 9 o’clock every night I come to the end of my serving capacity.  I don’t want to sign another paper, chauffeur another ride, check another piece of homework, write another email, be asked another question, or wash another dish.  I just want to be left alone to do what I want to do.
After 9, when someone comes with another request, I want to scream, “I’M SO TIRED OF DEALING WITH OTHER PEOPLE’S MESSES!”  (And to my family’s chagrin, act on that desire too often.)
So Jesus models what leadership looks like if we’re going to follow him.  Cheerfully doing the mundane and inglorious.  Rinsing dirt he didn’t gather, scrubbing callouses he didn’t form, healing fungus he didn’t catch.   Dealing with messes he didn’t create.
Most Maunday Thursdays we wash our kids’ feet and let them wash ours in return.  A silly little ritual that like our engagement footwashing, doesn’t necessarily translate into changed behavior or Christ-like character the day after.
But it’s still good to remember.  Still good to give.  And still good to receive, fungus and all.
This first appeared on What She Said

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Another Take on Pretty Good

As I wrote on "pretty good" being the new standard for me and my kids, I couldn't help thinking "This is contextualized for my uptight, Northeast, performance addicted, grim and driven culture."  Add the Chinese-American layer, and pretty good looks. . . pretty good.

Yet for other cultures, and other peoples, pretty good might not be good enough.

For example, I talked to an African American friend at church, commiserating about our middle-school boys who need both motivation and executive functioning skills.  She tells her dark-skinned son that he has to excel because in our culture, folks will stereotype him as a low-achiever even though he's not.  Therefore he must surpass expectations in every way.  Although she didn't say it, the sense I got was he needs to be twice as good to be seen as equal.   The way she talks, excelling is a survival skill in her community.

There's all sorts of research about expectations and school performance--if teachers expect low performance, they'll get it.   If they expect high performance, they'll get that too.

When I was writing my dissertation, Dr. Claude Steele's research fascinated me.  He wrote about "stereotype threat," how students' performances can be hindered solely because of how they think they're being perceived (ie. Black students told before taking a test "measuring" intelligence that White students did well, or White students told before the test that Asian students did well--both Blacks and Whites did more poorly than when not told anything at all, or when told the test was just a puzzle).   Click here to read an interesting article on his research.

And for another perspective on the standard of "pretty good," here's a poem by Charles Osgood:

Pretty Good

There once was a pretty good student
Who sat in a pretty good class
And was taught by a pretty good teacher
Who always let pretty good pass.
He wasn’t terrific at reading,
He wasn’t a whiz-bang at math,
But for him, education was leading
Straight down a pretty good path.
He didn’t find school too exciting,
But he wanted to do pretty well,
And he did have some trouble with writing
Since nobody taught him to spell.
When doing arithmetic problems,
Pretty good was regarded as fine.
5+5 needn’t always add up to be 10;
A pretty good answer was 9.
The pretty good class that he sat in 
Was part of a pretty good school,
And the student was not an exception:
On the contrary, he was the rule.
The pretty good school that he went to
Was there in a pretty good town,
And nobody there seemed to notice
He could not tell a verb from a noun.
The pretty good student in fact was
Part of a pretty good mob.
And the first time he knew what he lacked was
When he looked for a pretty good job.
It was then, when he sought a position,
He discovered that life could be tough,
And he soon had a sneaking suspicion
Pretty good might not be good enough.
The pretty good town in our story
Was part of a pretty good state
Which had pretty good aspirations
And prayed for a pretty good fate.
There once was a pretty good nation
Pretty proud of the greatness it had,
Which learned much too late,
If you want to be great,
Pretty good is, in fact, pretty bad. 

What do you think?  Is pretty good the right standard for your culture and people?

Or is it pretty bad?