Today, after nearly a full year of work, Kent has completed his first full math book, Saxon 5/4. To put the significance of this achievement in perspective, I want to provide some background.
Kent had a very challenging and unhelpful kindergarten experience. Through no fault of his own, he did not learn what he should have and so was moved to a different school for first grade. This was a better experience academically for Kent — he was his class’s most improved student for the year — but it was a hard one schedule-wise, since Darah and my work schedules required him to be at school and/or daycare for 10 hours each weekday. So, in second grade, we began homeschooling both Kent and his brother, Reed. Kent was then 7 years old.
In the homeschool environment, Kent made great strides in reading and writing, but math was a struggle for him. While he was seven and eight years old (approximately equivalent to grades two and three), we had him focus on mastering his basic math facts and doing lots and lots of worksheets and activities to help him increase his speed and accuracy while also introducing mathematics concepts. At age nine, we started him in the Saxon 5/4 math book, which is designed for fourth- or fifth-grade students.
He did very well for the first several lessons, but then got bogged down and seemed unable to move forward. Some days he just did not seem ready for the concepts; other days he balked at getting any wrong answers. After observing him for a while and a lot of reading and discussion with other homeschool parents, we determined that Kent was essentially over-thinking his work and just needed to build up his confidence in his basic math abilities. So we went back to worksheets and other activities that would build these skills. A mix of lessons from the Saxon book, lessons from different worksheets, and review of basic math facts consumed the next twelve or eighteen months, during which we would periodically have him do stretches in the Saxon book exclusively to see if he was ready to fully enter into it with a high degree of success.
Recall that our homeschool environment is primarily a self-taught one. Thus, achievement on the first math book is critical, because it will lay the foundation for the rest of the math course. If the lessons of the first book are learned well, both in terms of academics and skills required to accomplish consistently high marks (true learning of concepts, diligence, double-checking strategies, patience, “stick-to-it-iveness”), then successive achievement is more likely to be at a high level. Given these points, we preferred to have his entry into that first mathematics book match up with his readiness to engage it at a high level and with good success, rather than “forcing it” at a an arbitrary point in time.
Somewhere in March of last year, at age 10½, Kent started tackling Saxon lessons again, and this time he made steady progress forward. Some days were very hard. But over the course of this past twelve months, Kent has proven to himself that he can concentrate on mathematics for about two hours a day, that he can learn brand new concepts on his own after wrestling with them in pencil-and-paper over many days and weeks, and that math can even be fun! He has worked every problem on every page of this book, on his own. I have helped him occasionally by pointing him in the right direction, but he has done the hard work of learning — work that truly only he can do for himself. Along the way, Kent has learned not only mathematics; he has also learned that he can learn through consistent application of himself over time. That is perhaps the most valuable lesson of all.
I will never forget when Kent was struggling mightily with his multiplication speed tests. It was the first time he had been given 100 multiplication facts problems to work, and it was taking him well over ten minutes to work them accurately. This was around lesson 40 or 50. I told him that by the time he was done with the book (a total of 142 lessons) he would easily be completing that same sheet of 100 problems in under four minutes with only one or two mistakes. Mouth agape, he simply could not imagine that this was possible. I assured him it was if he would continue working at it for two hours every day, six days a week.
Today, he completed that same sheet of 100 problems in three minutes with only one error and was incredibly frustrated that this was a full thirty seconds over his best time of roughly 2.5 minutes, with no mistakes. I reminded him of our conversation months ago. He laughed out loud, for he cannot now imagine a time when this task was so arduous. That is the power of hard work.
I am very proud of you, Kent. Nil desperandum! (Never give up!)