Archive for Monday, August 27, 2012


River City Jules: Sixth-grade math

August 27, 2012


One full week and some odd change into the school year, and I am already stumped by homework.

While our high school sophomore knows better than to ask me for help with anything more complicated than getting a ride to a debate tournament, I somehow have our eighth-grader convinced I can do things like define “coefficient” and solve for both “x” AND “y.”

This particular assignment involved identifying proper fractions and then finding the correlation between n-squared-plus-one-over-n and a chart full of multi-colored dots.

It was while staring at the dots that I remembered a couple of years ago at a back-to-school night when our daughter’s sixth-grade teacher emphasized the importance of mastering sixth-grade math, as most adults use skills acquired up through and including the sixth-grade math level on a daily basis, though rarely much more beyond that.

Truer words were never spoken.

My dad, as both an engineer and a semi-retired remodeler, has certainly tapped into eighth-, 10th-, probably even college-level math long after solving problems for a grade. And I imagine there are still bankers in the world who determine annual interest accruals on certificates of deposit by using long-form integration equations (I used to know what that means).

But for most of us, daily math involves in-head calculations for word problems such as:

“Popcorn at the movie theater costs $5; Raisinets cost $4.50. How much will snacks cost for a family of six?” (Answer: $6 plus tax if you shop the dollar candy shelf at Target and sneak it in. Save the popcorn for when your kids aren’t with you.)

Or: “Your minivan gets 19 miles per gallon. Your gas light comes on. How far can you go before you have to fill up?” (Answer: 39 miles, which comes as both a relief and a surprise to you when you discover your tank actually holds at least 18.239 gallons, not 17.788 as you had previously believed.)

Or: “Julie is interested in a new pair of boots for the winter. It has been several years since she last purchased a new pair. The tread has worn down to a dangerous level on the heel, the black finish has rubbed off in a way she can no longer cover it with a Sharpie and the toe shape has been out of style for two seasons now. If she forgoes dinner out with the family in exchange for cooking something with pasta and nonorganic chicken for three extra meals this month, can she justify a new pair of boots, priced at 20 percent off for a limited time?” (Answer: You had me at “new pair of boots.”)

Our son is now in sixth grade, possibly completing a majority of his long-term math education this year. We will persevere in teaching them all how to do impressive stunts with their mechanical pencils and graphing calculators, but it is nice to know that, by May, three-fourths (a proper fraction) of our kids will be equipped to deal with any variable that might come along.

— Julie Dunlap can be reached at


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