I still vividly remember the day, 14 years ago, when a tall and painfully shy sixth grade student named Lisa sat down at my kitchen table for her first math lesson with me. Lisa's principal had recommended her for a free after-school tutoring program I had started in my apartment with several friends. Although I had asked the principal for students struggling in math, I was not prepared for Lisa.
I had planned to boost Lisa's confidence by teaching her to add fractions. I knew from previous experience as a tutor that children often develop anxieties about math when they first encounter fractions. Because my lesson involved multiplication, I asked Lisa if she had trouble remembering any times tables, but she stared at me blankly. She had no idea what multiplication meant. Even the concept of counting by a number other than one was foreign to her. She was terrified by my questions and kept saying, when I mentioned the simplest concepts, “I don't understand.”