Math “Evangelist” Spreads the Word to Parents

To some people, five minutes spent waiting in the grocery store line is time wasted. To Dr. Patricia Clark Kenschaft, G’63, Gr’73, author of Math Power: How to Help Your Child Love Math, Even If You Don’t (Addison-Wesley), it’s an opportunity to play a fun counting game with a child. 
   Kenschaft, a professor of mathematics at Montclair State University and a math “evangelist” since childhood, says she wrote the book because she wants others to derive the same pleasure that she has gotten from the discipline, and because, “I believe a lot of people have to be comfortable with many aspects of math for us to survive as a human species on this planet.”  
   Unfortunately, loathing math is socially acceptable in our culture, Kenschaft says. “You never hear people saying at parties, ‘Oh, I never did learn to read,’ whereas they very easily would say, ‘I was never good at math.’” One reason for the widespread dread of math, Kenschaft believes, is that mastery requires repeated humiliations. “After you learn it, it becomes easy, so you beat yourself up and say, ‘Oh, how could I have been so stupid last week?’” Another reason is that “in this country, elementary school teachers have very little education in mathematics and tend to be drawn from those who themselves are exceptionally math anxious,” says Kenschaft, who has won 14 grants to help elementary school teachers. “So until this changes, they will unwittingly spread their math anxiety among their pupils. Twenty-four states have no requirements whatsoever for elementary school teachers to know any math at all.” 
   That’s why it’s up to parents to nurture children in their earliest exploration of math. Even if geometry makes you jittery and algebra causes angst, you can pass on more knowledge than you think, Kenschaft says. Just think of math as “the use of patterns to solve problems.” The key, she says, is to start early and to treat math as a fun game: While waiting for an elevator, count the number of floors the car needs to go down; in the grocery store line, count items in the shopping cart. Soon the child will start asking questions. “Then it’s the parent’s challenge to keep it up and and always keep it fun. Getting the right answer rarely matters. Getting into the spirit of problem solving [is the goal].” 
   Kenschaft has taught math for almost 30 years, has written more than 60 papers on math-related topics, and served as the first national chair of the Committee on the Participation of Women of the Mathematical Association of America.

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