Word Problems

courtesy of Laineys Repertoire
courtesy of Laineys Repertoire


I like to keep math with math, and words with words. Mix them together, for that classroom favorite known as a “word problem,” and there I am in the midst of an anxiety-ridden brainteaser.

These pesky puzzles were problematic when I was in school, lowering test grades and bringing down SAT scores. Their intent is to apply math concepts to real-life situations, making the mind think outside of rote formulas. But math has always been a challenge for me, and leaving the safety of numbered exercises can be like wandering the world of Alice in Wonderland. Try as I might, so often my mind just can’t quite make sense of where to start or how to proceed.

This is embarrassing to admit. In my 42 years, I’ve experienced plenty of problems in life, and I like to think I’ve solved many of them with relative wisdom and clear-headedness. Though, in most instances, no complex arithmetic was involved.

Rather than belittle myself, lately I’ve taken to the thinking that for those that enjoy the challenge of a good word problem, go for it (my father being one, as he was awarded the airline’s bottle of champagne by guessing the halfway point between California and Hawaii, by using numbers related to mileage, speed, and wind gusts). Fun, fun, fun- but not for me.

So for those that draw a blank with complex scenarios involving numbers, can we please just pass?

This is an odd request to settle upon, knowing that I’ve always felt the word problem ruled the upper echelon of arithmetic. The crowning jewel that proved your math mettle. I’ve not wanted to give up, I’ve wanted to figure it out. Though inevitably, I’ve felt less-than-smart as I’ve struggled through the word problem maze, rarely coming up with a correct answer.

Now as an adult, I’m reliving my student years, as Jeb embarks on sixth grade, with what seems to be quite a rigorous curriculum, compared to what I recall studying at his age.

If you follow the Archives, you may know that this year Jeb requested not to be included in anymore blog posts. As he enters the tender ‘tween years’ I can understand and respect this.

However, I am learning about this in-between age, realizing it is anything but consistent. As of last night, Jeb not only gave his okay to be included in future blog posts, but he specifically asked if I would “please just use my real name” (and no, I will not).

That said, I can rest easy in disclosing that math is Jeb’s most least loved subject. Despite my attempts to remain neutral in this area, he seems to have adopted an aversion even stronger than my own.

Homework assignments involving math at our house can devolve quickly. Jeb elicits help, I tentatively (with fake nonchalance) oblige. This often involves me flipping pages of the text-book to try to find clues as to how to do the assignment. I’m embarrassed to say that some of sixth grade math is already beyond me. Or, the method in which they are teaching the concepts, is different from how I was taught.

Because we’ve already lived through emotional meltdowns, numerous tutors, failed tests, and half-finished homework assignments covered in question marks, Jeb’s latest approach is more creative. He does his math homework with an English accent.

So last night, it was word problems. Plenty of material for perfecting that foreign tongue.

Problem number 42 presents us with the following situation:

A red light flashes every 14 minutes. A blue light flashes every 24 minutes. When will the two lights flash together again, if they last flashed together at 8 a.m.?

At first I feel the thrill of the challenge. We can figure this out. I think I should probably be using their greatest common factor, or a least common multiple, but I’m not exactly sure. I stray from the lesson and try to use what seems logical to my mind, mapping out the times in intervals, labeling each by color.

I chart it out on paper, but Jeb loses interest almost instantly. He becomes merely a spectator, engaged only in hearing the sound of his own English accent, making comical remarks.

“What does this have to do with real life anyway? I can’t stand these assignments that have nothing to do with anything I’m going to use.”

I graph quietly, with concentration…8:14 red. 8:24 blue.

“Well,” I try, “you may need to figure something like this out one day.”

His accent stays strong. “This? This nonsense. There are no blue lights. There are red, green, and yellow lights.”

“Well, ok, true.” I’m smiling to myself.

“And what’s with the fourteen minutes? No one’s waiting fourteen minutes at a light. This…this is absurd.” That’s “absuhd,” no ‘r’ pronounced.

It is all a little absurd. I’m happy that math homework has taken a turn to humor, but it’s obvious Jeb’s done with word problems for the night. They are now only a source of ridicule and entertainment. By 8:48 blue, I’m ready to quit, too. I’m pretty certain my way of attempting to solve the problem is not the path the teacher had in mind, anyway. We pencil in one more question mark next to number 42 on Jeb’s lined, binder paper.

It’s interesting to observe the feeling of vulnerability arise as I write so candidly about my difficulties with math. I do believe I’m a fairly intelligent person. But when it comes to certain aspects of arithmetic, I can feel just downright dumb. It’s painful to see my son experiencing the same frustration and lack of confidence.

Is this genetic? Learned? Is it a flaw in the way we are teaching math to students?

I have no answers. Just one more big question mark on the page.

But for now, last night’s British take on ‘maths’ was a welcome relief, even if we didn’t get the answers right.


  1. 10:48 a.m.

    1. I tried 6 x 14=84 84 divided by 24=3.5
    2. I double 3.5 to come out even, then try 12×14=168, then divide 168 by 24=7
    or 12 red flashes every 14 minutes=168 minutes, and 7 blue flashes every 24 minutes=168 minutes
    3. 168 minutes=2 hours and 48 minutes

    I’m sure this approach is not in Jeb’s text, and Grandpa would love to help with his homework, but I’m afraid I’d only mix him up.

    Good luck, Jess, looks like you haven’t escaped algebra yet. xxooxxoo


  2. I think I would list the multiples of 14 and the multiples of 24 and see if they have any in common. This is just off the top of my head because math was something that put me to sleep. Now it turns out that my husband is a math teacher. Many people have suffered because of math. Sometimes he can find where they got stuck and help them. People have a lot of prejudice about math. I don’t know if it is due to methods of teaching or what.


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