Friday, August 15, 2014

Math Rules Everything Around Me

It all started simply enough. It was summer, and somewhere in our house, a child was bored. Normally I try not to get involved in matters like that, but the child in question was sitting at the kitchen table with me, and she was really bringing me down.

It was our older daughter, Hannah. She had slouched into the room while I was feeding Zoe dinner and sat down with us, giving us the gift of a deep sigh. My wife had just brought in our latest tomato crop from the garden and put it on the table. Given the weather peculiarities around these parts this year -- Polar Vortexes, Late Springs, Summers Without Swimming Weather -- our garden has underperformed and underwhelmed. For most of the summer, our cherry tomatoes have ranged in size from a Red Ryder BB to a cats-eye marble. We have struggled to find anything to do with them, but Hannah had the beginning of an idea that got me thinking. She looked at the pile and said "I wonder how many there are. Can I put them in this bowl?" "Of course," I said, "but you should count each one as you do." I figured that additional task would occupy her for almost a minute, which was precious to me at the time. The final tally was 43 (and to help illustrate my previous point, those 43 tomatoes, taken together, did not equal the size of a normal Roma tomato).

The large number of tomatoes made me think to the past school year, when Hannah and her first grade class were given a series of guessing contests by their teacher each week. How many jellybeans were in the bowl? How many clothespins were in the jar? Hannah had an uncanny knack for having the closest number. She "won" the contest at least three times (even though technically, there were never any winners). If the finer casinos in Las Vegas had a "Guess the Number of Clothespins" game, we'd be on our way there right now, plotting ways to spend our winnings in advance. Zoe is going into first grade in a week, and it occurred to me that she will probably have the chance to show off her numerical guessing skills too. Or would she?

Zoe is smart, but like many Rett girls, we struggle to find ways for her to show how smart she is. She has a Tobii eyegaze computer, and her teachers started to complement that with her own PODD book this year also. Each system has pages where she has access to numbers and can choose and say them. But given the page and screen size, her choices are limited. As I thought about Hannah's guessing acumen and the number of tomatoes, a comment from Zoe's summer school teacher in her daily notes from a few weeks ago came to mind: "Zoe counted all the way up to four today." Four is a long strike from forty-three. Every single number in between the two of them has proved useful at one time or another. And I got pissed. Because Zoe only stopped counting at four for them that day for one of two reasons: she either got tired (very possible depending on what else had gone on in school that day), or they only showed her that many numbers.

I immediately flipped to the number screen on her Tobii. The first screen showed 1 through 7. That's it. Granted, one of the reasons for that is the layout of the screen and the other buttons for which we need room on each screen ("Back", "What I Want to Say Is Not On Here", etc). But it was clear we were putting constraints on Zoe's counting that didn't need to be there. Either that, or we were electing to use the obscure "Base-7" numerical system. The next screen had 8 through 13. There was not a third screen.

I started editing right away. Clearing out unnecessary buttons, I made room for all ten numbers, plus zero (it deserves to be there as much as all the other numbers), and a button to skip to the next set of ten numbers. 11 through 20. 21 through 30. All the way up to 50.

Then I showed Zoe where they were and how to navigate them. She looked at me. She rubbed her face with her arm, as she always does when she's tired, and then she rolled her eyes, as she frequently does when the end of her patience for me is within range. That's fine with me. I accomplished what I wanted. She may not need them right away, on Day 1 of first grade, but they're there. She's equipped for more heavy-duty counting when she needs it. And I know there are going to be more than four clothespins in the jar at the MGM Grand when Zoe and I hit town for the Guessing Contest, and we make off like bandits.