Math poses a number of problems for girls

January 28, 1996|By SUSAN REIMER

IN MY HOUSEHOLD, there is one parent who paints T-shirts on the kitchen table with the kids and their friends, and one parent who buys books as birthday presents.

I am that latter parent, and my approval rating shows it. Two out of two children do not approve of the job I am doing as their mother.

In other words, 100 percent of the minors in my family are #F dissatisfied with how I am handling the responsibilities of the mother.

I have a problem only children's author Jon Scieszka can solve. It might appear to be a child-rearing problem or a personality problem, but it is really a math problem. That's because "you can think of almost everything as a math problem."

That's what Mrs. Fibonacci, the math teacher, said, and as a result the heroine of Scieszka's new book, "Math Curse," spends the day lost in a forest of formulas. ("How many yards in a neighborhood? How many feet in my shoes? Does tuna fish + tuna fish = fournafish?")

Scieszka, whose surname is a spelling problem, is the manic superstar of kid lit who first grabbed the microphone in 1989 with his version of fairy tales as stand-up comedy.

"The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs" by A. Wolf ("You can call me Al") became an instant classic, and Scieszka followed with "The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales," a smart-mouthed and edgy retelling of classic fairy tales that found a secondary audience among the hip and childless -- so much so that it has been advertised on "Friends" and Letterman.

Now the 41-year-old former math teacher and father of two ("a daughter who reads and a son who would rather skate") has produced "Math Curse" with his favorite illustrating partner, Lane Smith, whose offbeat art illustrates that he is just as nuts as Scieszka is.

The book is a hoot. There are real math problems everywhere. In the price: [($3.25 + $1.75) x 3] + $1.99 = $16.99. In the dedication: "If the sum of my nieces and nephews equals 15 and their product equals 54, and I have more nephews than nieces, how many nephews and how many nieces is this book dedicated to?"

There are sly references to math history, and there is plenty of real math, including logic and a proof.

Best of all, "Math Curse" is common ground for my daughter, who reads, and my son, who would rather do anything else. Taken together, these children are a proof of the illogical statement that boys are good in math and girls are not.

I did not believe this tired, old gender bias until it was proven to me at my kitchen table over homework.

My son, who once asked for his lunch money in a lump sum so

that he could invest it and use the profits to buy Dr Pepper and Doritos after school, is a math whiz.

My daughter -- who once responded to her father's patient question, "If there are six fish and a shark eats three fish, how many fish are left?" by asking, "Where?" -- is not.

The fact that boys are often better in math than girls is not a right-brain, left-brain matter, and there is no sex-linked math gene. And it is not true that a girl decides in junior high that math is, like, so boring.

Education researchers have traced her poorer performance all the way back to elementary school. As it turns out, a girl's weakness in math is the result of one of her strengths.

Rules and orderliness appeal to girls from an early age, and so arithmetic in elementary school comes easily to her. At that stage, math is simply following steps and watching out for details, her strong suit.

At the same time, the boys in her class are behaving like puppies in an open field, and their aversion to rules and details draws the attention of the teacher, who must work overtime to impose the logic of mathematics on the chaos of little boys' brains.

By sixth grade, the girl who was ahead of the boys in math is now even or behind them. By high school, she will score some 30 points lower on the math portion of the Scholastic Assessment Test.

For a while, a girl's ability to follow steps hides any difficulty she has with the math concepts she is being taught. Soon the complexity of those concepts outstrips her one-foot-in-front-of-the-other approach. Meanwhile, the reinforcement and repetition the boys received earlier is paying off.

None of which is addressed in Scieszka's "Math Curse." His heroine is triumphant. She finds the formula that will release her from her math nightmare.

As I read the book to my children, the math problems she encountered during her day were a bonus for my 11-year-old son, who still defines "reading" as something your mother does for you.

My daughter, however, was less animated. I think she would have enjoyed "Math Curse" more if Scieszka's little girl had formed a baby-sitting co-op with friends and had adventures.

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