published Sunday, November 20th, 2011

Kennedy: Homework headaches work out

At home, I have become the designated homework helper for our 10-year-old son.

This is odd because I am not smarter than a fourth-grader. Plus, fourth-grade is a huge math year, and I honed my multiplication skills with heavy input from Texas Instruments.

My only asset as a homework helper is that I refuse to utter the word "awesome" -- a ridiculously overused word that I believe is the main reason American students lead the world only in self-esteem and skateboarding.

Thus, my first assignment was to help my son with learning his multiplication facts, a skill at which I am the complete opposite of awesome.

We tried flash cards, but my older son inherited my aversion for rote learning. (Freakishly, my younger, 5-year-old son, who memorizes with ease, knows that the book of Malachi comes after the book of Zechariah in the Old Testament. Little showoff.)

At night, during study time, my older son and I would work our way up to 6-times-7 in the multiplication facts, and immediately his face would tighten up like a fist.

"Think," I would say. "A football team has just scored six touchdowns and extra points. Now how many points do they have?"

"Um, 49?" he would guess.

"No, not 49," I would say, "42."

Kids today are under a lot of pressure to learn their multiplication facts. My son has to take a test every week with a goal of getting 50 multiplication problems 100 percent correct in 60 sections.

It reminds me of that TV show, "Minute To Win It," where people play games, like rolling a dime into the teeth of a salad fork in 60 seconds, to win a million dollars. If the skill doesn't get to you, the countdown pressure will.

I've done a little better as a social-studies tutor, but there have still been some bumps along the way. Last week we were studying explorers. I would throw out a fact, and he would name the explorer associated with the information.

"He was the first explorer to see the Pacific Ocean from the New World," I quizzed.

"Balboa," my son answered confidently.

"Good," I said, giving him a high five and moving down the list. "Now, try this one: He explored the Mississippi River."

My son began to nod, knowingly, "Hernando Paterno."


"Hernando DeSoto, not Paterno," I corrected, making a mental note to turn off ESPN.

Later, in discussing the bounty the explorer brought back from the New World to their patrons in Europe, he ticked off: "corn, potatoes, squash and cocaine."

"Cocoa," I corrected. "Not cocaine. There's a big difference, son. Do not write cocaine on your test, OK?"

"Yes, Daddy."

He had to do a project on Balboa. He was a little bummed he didn't get DeSoto, who was evidently overbooked.

My son had the choice of drawing a poster or doing a PowerPoint presentation on Balboa. We picked the poster because Daddy thinks making mindless PowerPoint presentations is what "awesome" kids do when they grow up to be "awesome" middle managers.

For all of our homework struggles, my son made A's on his report card and came home with a Star Student bumper sticker, which I have proudly posted on our refrigerator.

"OK," I thought this morning as I admired the Star Student sticker while fetching the milk for my bran flakes, "that's borderline awesome."

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...

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