Thursday, March 11, 2010

We hope they're good at Math...

Parochial School PE and Mardi Gras in the 80s

Among my worst memories growing up, PE (physical education) at Christ the King parochial school features prominently. I am naturally clumsy with poor eye-hand coordination (and this is not in an endearing Bella Swan of Twilight kind of way). PE in the 1980s featured lots of team sports involving throwing, catching and dodging balls as well as the (now) incomprehensible practice of letting the kids pick the teams. Needless to say the team captains were always the most popular and athletic boys and girls. I remember listening to them go down the names of my classmates hoping to avoid the impossible--the humiliation of being picked last or (occasionally) second to last. By fifth grade, I discovered an escape hatch from the disapproving screams of "Way to Go Mason!" as they rolled the ball towards me in kickball...and I tripped over it, or my prayers went unanswered and the baseball came my way in the outfield. I volunteered to be the teacher's grading assistant. I couldn't believe my luck. As my class-mates tromped off to the hated PE, I stayed in the cloistered quiet of the class-room, in the all-powerful role of grader.

By high school, I attended a different school and PE had expanded to include something I was actually good at that required little grace or eye-hand coordination--running. My torment took another form--Mardi Gras--an annual play, dance and float competition among the four years of Girls High School. If you had no discernible dramatic talents and didn't happen to be pretty or popular enough to be elected float queen, you automatically got shuffled into one of the three class dances. Did I mention these dances involved costumes, usually not very flattering ones? With the exception of my Junior Year (where I escaped by going Abroad) I danced as a bat to Michael Jackson's "Thriller," a chipmunk to Steppenwolf's "Magic Carpet Ride" and an "Egyptian" (I think this was to the Bangle's "Walk like an Egyptian"). Inevitably the dance captain was some bossy little girl who had been taking ballet or tap since she was two, who did not appreciate my poor execution of her steps and inability to stay on beat, thus interfering with her moment to shine.

You would think this experience would have made me sympathetic to my own children's potential to have inherited this lack of athletic ability. My husband requests that I point out that this defect does not come his side of the gene pool and that he was a very respectable athlete in his day. Nevertheless, I have decided that part of the children's education in Spain should involve their participation in a locally popular extra-curricular activity.

The Royal Conservatory

As a resourceful American woman with access to the Internet, and ideas about her daughter learning grace, deportment and discipline. I found about something called the Conservatory. Note: my daughter also took karate for many years. This was in my "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" phase when I decided "I will have a girl with skin as fair as snow, hair like spun gold, who can kick butt" (alas no Asian ancestry since Gatins' forebear Rene Madec left Quimper as a cabin boy with the French East India Company in the 18th century, had many adventures, became a Nabob and eventually married a descendant of Genghis Khan). "This girl-child will excel at school, dance like an angel and, if necessary, deliver blows like a killer." My daughter actually has rhythm and grace. She passed the auditions and now we're sucking off the teat of socialism as she learns classical ballet, Spanish dance and music theory for 6 hours a week (the hours go up after the first year), at the ridiculous cost of 120 euros a year--roughly one months's tuition, plus the cost of the recital costume in the US. One thing that is nice about state sponsorhip of the arts is that while ballet is a cliche of the aspirant middle and upper-middle class in the US, my daughter's companions at Spanish conservatory come from all walks of life. This program turns professional after 4 years and, for many of these children, it's their ticket to a career as a dancer.

Fundacion Real Madrid Futbol

Meanwhile, what could be more Spanish or even more international than "futbol" (soccer for you Americans). Nothing less than a Real Madrid youth team (haven't noticed that any girls play in the league, but didn't ask either) in a working class suburb would do for my boys' "education." My boys are average height and, while they have respectable gross motor skills, they are up against boys who started playing a lot earlier than they did. The US soccer team for their age was run by a church-league and usually coached by a parent or grand-parent, with one hour-long practice and one game a week, played at a local park or elementary school. On the other hand, the pre-benjamin (7 and under) futbol team for Fundacion Real Madrid has one and a half hour practices twice a week, professional coaches and a ginormous brand-new 10-field stadium near Barajas airport. Oh, and did I mention that they don't cancel games for weather here. Madrid is at 800 meters altitude can get quite cold and wet in the winter. I, wrongly, assumed they could wear their team sweatpants and jacket during the game, but instead they had to strip down to thin nylon shirts and shorts to play in sleet. Recently, their team got beat 8-2 by a bunch of 5 and 6 year-old boys from another Madrid barrio where they take futbol even more seriously.

One of my boys actually likes the game, has a sense of defense and is competitive. The other one couldn't care less. He's the kind that does flips on the goal during practice or looks for four leaf clover while the action passes him by. Both boys get shouted at and made fun of by their more advanced Spanish team-mates. The only saving grace is that they get some popularity points for being exotic twin, Americans. One day at practice, when the less-motivated twin wasn't paying attention and let the goal in, a bulky team-mate kicked his butt. When the little one showed some backbone, ran after the bully and kicked him in the tail-bone, my husband was so proud. The kids all laughed. This was the sort of "education" I was hoping for when I signed them up.


This brings me to my children's latest passion--Mathletics. We discovered this when the boys' school sent home a note saying that all the children would be participating in something called World Maths Day on March 2nd, and gave us their logon and password so they could practice at home. Mathletics educational software, by Australian company 3P Learning, does a very clever job of promoting themselves and successfully bridging the gap between the free, often-school-sponsored competition, World Math Day, and their subscription, for-pay product.

Now for a note of reassurance. The Fleury children are completely normal kids, which is to say that they would rather be watching cartoons and playing video games than doing anything remotely education-related in their free time. In fact it takes a kick in the butt to make sure they do their homework in their free time. We have tried other things to "trick" our children into thinking math was a game, but it never works--they always realize that math is work.

The genius of World Math Day is it flies in the face of current educational trends--don't stress the child out, don't give them time trials, teach them that "we are all winners"--and takes a page out of the book of Game Theory (how can I convince people to play hours of an online or video game, not the Math and Econ Nobel prize-winning kind). I haven't read this, but my husband, who has spent many an hour playing video games, says that the successful games involve competition, time-trials, levels, and "rewards." In World Math Day and Mathletics the children compete in 1-minute speed challenges to answer the greatest number of math questions (addition, subtraction, multipication and division) against children across the world. World Math Day truly was international--in any random game, depending on world time zones my children might be competing against "Jill" from Great Britain, "Mohammed" from Qatar and "Jesus" from Guatemala. Predictably, given the subscription cost, the players in the for-pay game seem to come mostly from Great Britain, the US, Canada and Australia. The child's first name, last initial, country flag, country and school name (if the school participates) will show up when they compete in both games. The children can see how they measure up real-time as a horizontal bar graph tracks the number of questions answered correctly by each child. In Mathletics, the children use the points to go shopping for virtual crap on the Mathletics site. One of my sons learned a lesson about spending his "money" when he lost 200 hard-earned points, accidentally purchasing a hair upgrade for his avatar, he thought he was just trying out. It's amazing how feverishly hard my children are working to purchase things that don't even exist! This business model is genius.

The children's new hero, is World Maths Day Champion Kaya G, a scrawny 11-year old from Australia. One child is an outright admirer and two of them are haterz, who complain that Kaya G was allowed to compete again 2010 and win again, thinking he should have been forced to give other people a turn and share the glory. They watch his video, note that he can go faster because he has a special numeric keypad, and that his avatar "has the most expensive background" on Mathletics.

The interesting lesson in this game is that 1) math is truly an international language and 2) no matter how good you think you are, there is some kid half-way around the world waiting to kick your butt. For some reason, this makes me think of the French News Parody show with puppets, "Les Guignols de L'info". They used to have this parody of a multinational company called "La World Company" with a Sylvester Stallone/Rambo type executive who used to always spout the pompous truism "Le Monde est Mondial": The World is Worldwide. Get used to it baby.

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