Photo courtesy of Neeraj Kumar

Wednesday on Facebook, I had the most amazing experience. Suffering from an all-day migraine, I had spent the afternoon bored out of my mind, obsessively checking Facebook while the television droned in the background. At one point, this status update from my friend Alyson appeared in my feed:

ALGEBRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!! (Shaking fist angrily in air at math gods)

I was Batman and here was the bat signal. How could I help?

The first response was from someone I didn’t know and very typical: “Outside of college, you don’t really need it, right?” I rolled my eyes inwardly and thought about why Alyson might need to solve an algebra problem. Then I remembered her incredibly bright son, who is completely enamored with computers. I mean in love with the machines. I’d bet my last dollar that the boy will find himself programming or engineering or something in STEM as an adult. In other words, he would need algebra.

I posted a few questions to see how I could help, and eventually Alyson posted the original equation to solve:

Whew! It is a doozy, right? Alyson had one very specific question: how to handle the last term of the equation: . I told her the simple answer — that it was the same thing as . Still a teacher at heart, I wanted to see what she could do with that information. Was it enough to help her solve the problem?

Meanwhile lots of other people were chiming in, and Alyson was expressing lots of feelings:

And just so everyone knows, I suck at fractions. Always have, always will. When I took SAT and ACT and whatever else, I literally turned all fractions into decimals because I can never remember how to add, subtract, divide, multiply, etc. fractions.

I’m close to crying…I still don’t understand what you’re saying. He worked the whole thing out at got what my online algebra check thing says is a wrong answer, and I’m trying to work it out so I can figure out how to get the RIGHT answer and I really do think I’m going to cry…

Frustration cry. Because I didn’t think I’d ever use math. And I was wrong. For the record. Sorry, Mrs. Blankenship.

This is a super smart lady. She edits college-level courses of all kinds, and she’s had a successful freelance writing career for many years. And I can completely identify with her frustration. I’d been struggling with Venn diagrams and conditional statements all day. No wonder I had a migrane.

But then something really amazing happened. Really amazing. A mutual facebook friend and writer, Jody (owner of Charlotte on the Cheap) tagged us both in her status update:

Do I have it right? Do I?

At 6:15 on a Wednesday evening, she had not only worked out a challenging pre-algebra problem but also taken the time to scan it and post on Facebook. She was so excited. And, yes, she had gotten the correct answer.

She had also done it differently than I did. But that’s not even the best part. Alyson saw Jody’s process and looked carefully — very carefully. She posted this:

I worked through it on my own twice using your strategy, which ended up making a lot of sense to me once I talked it out a few times. So now I can explain it to [my son] and actually have a clue what I’m talking about. THANK YOU.

Within an hour, another of Alyson’s friends had posted one more way to do the problem. It was a smorgasbord of solutions!

But here’s the very best part: with all of these threads, there were very few people chiming in to say that they were too dumb to help or “who cares?” In fact, I saw many more people posting things like this:

This I can do. Proof reading for grammar errors…….not so much!

I will be glad to do some algebra when the time comes.

I love math, call me, text me pictures!!!! I will PM you my number.

Why WHY WHY are you having an algebra party without ME?! I love me some equations!

It wasn’t a complete love-fest, but it was worlds different than I’m used to seeing. The tenor of the discussion was supportive and positive, rather than defeated. Sure, there’s was lots of frustration. And I’m betting that there were lots of people reading the threads and thinking, “Good god, I’m going to be in BIG trouble when my kid takes algebra.” But what played out in the end was a good experience — not just getting the right answer but learning different ways to approach the problem.

I originally became a math teacher because I was convinced of two things: math is important and anyone can do math. For years, I’ve felt pretty alone in those two estimations — especially after leaving the classroom. Yet, here was a community of people who were working from the same premise, encouraging Alyson and excitedly trying out the problem themselves.

I can’t think of a better way to end Back-to-School month at Math for Grownups. If you parents can express this enthusiasm — along with your frustration, if you have any — you’ll be doing your kids a big favor. It’s the pushing through and looking for ways to understand things differently that makes a difference. Imagine how much more empowered and confident our kids will feel if they get the message that math is important and that they can do it.

What positive messages about math have you seen lately? Have you found ways to be more encouraging about math with your own kids? Share your thoughts in the comments section.