Friday, May 06, 2011

Dear Math, Solve Your Own Problems, I am not your therapist...


I like that little saying..."Dear Math, Solve your own problems, I am not your therapist." Except ironically, to become a therapist, I must learn to solve math's problems.

Allow me to indulge a little history of me and math.

I think math and I started out innocently enough. I think in first grade we were cool. We had these little plastic things we could play with at our desk to figure out what the answer to one plus one or 4 plus 2 equaled. It didn't seem too stressful. Let's face it, those phonetic workbooks were way more stressful. In 3rd grade was the first time we ran into a little trouble. Mrs. McCullough gave us a problem which involved counting money and coming up with an answer. I honestly couldn't tell you if it was any more complicated than counting a big old handful of change. But what I remember was that we couldn't go to lunch until we got the correct answer. It was me and 2 other kids sitting in that classroom for the majority of lunch recess trying to get it right. Over and over again I would go up to the front with my answer. Mrs. McCullough would peer over her glasses at my answer sheet, gently shake her head and cheerfully declare "try again" and I would head back to my desk AGAIN. I was the last kid to finally go to lunch that day and she finally had to show me what I was doing wrong, because I just wasn't getting it. After that, math and I were never quite the same again.

In 4th grade we had times tables timed exams. Hated those. I was never fast enough and always trying to get caught up to where most of the kids were. But the worst was in 5th grade. In that grade Mr. Whatcott had gone to some hippy education seminar where they decided children should be their own guides in school. So for math he would often send us out into the hall in small groups to work on math together. I didn't know what the crap was going on as it was - I missed class the day we discussed fractions and after that I was trying to play catch up all the time. "Studying" in the hall with my fellow 5th graders did not assist me in any way. Mostly, those sessions turned into talk about who else had a crush on that kid Sam, who was mad at who, and what were they having for lunch in the caffeteria that day.

The next year I had a good math teacher, Mrs. McPheeters, and I made some gains. But whenever talk turned to fractions I would get a cold sweat going. I just never had some basic concept of what we were talking about.

In 7th grade my teacher told us if we had any questions we were welcome to come up and ask him. Oh yeah, and if you would please sit on his lap so he could look at your work, that would be helpful. I never did make it up there to his lap. All the girls who were getting good grades in that class spent the majority of the hour sitting with him hovered over their shoulder while they sat on his lap looked at papers and worked problems. Gross. I think his breathe was disgusting and there was no way I was sitting on his lap in order to get help. I did terribly in that class. I never bothered to mention to anyone that he was requesting the ladies sit on his lap to obtain assistance. Isn't it bizarre the way your brain works when your 13? It seemed totally innocent to me, just gross. He was old and smelly and I had no interest in sitting on his lap, end of story. The next year was better because my best friend was in my class with me. Well, at least I thought it was better. That year was kind of a blurr. I don't remember actually learning anything in that class, I just remember being in trouble a lot for talking. Oh, and in 9th grade, SCORE! we were in the same class together again (and both severely math handi-capped!). Bad bad bad idea. There should be a law against best friends being in math class together.

Next came high school and geometry. Which lasted for all of 2 weeks (and my best friend was in my class again! because apparently it didn't occur to anyone that this was a problem...). After those first couple of weeks while my head swam with talk of theorums and other incomprehensible things that I could not grasp, the "coach" (isn't it always?) took my friend and I aside and said "Hey, I don't think you guys really need to worry too much about taking geometry. Idaho says you only have to have 1 math class while in high school besides the algebra you took in 9th grade. I teach another class called "applied math" - I think it would be perfect for you, we really focus on things like figuring out if you're shopping and a blouse is $20 and it's 15% off, how much is the blouse?" It would be great because let's face it, you're both going to get married and you're not really going to need math anyway so this would be much more practical for you.

I was signed up before he could finish his little speech. What? I don't ever have to take this crazy geometry business? I can skip any additonal algebra altogether? (even though my 9th grade algebra was still technically 'pre-algebra') Perfect! Yes!

Then I went to college and because I was an elementary ed major I only had to take the Math for Elementary Ed class. Nothing else was required back in the late 80s.

Flash forward.

A few years ago I realized that I really wanted to finish the bachelor's degree I started back then and never completed. But now they would require me to take both college algebra and statistics.

Do you know how many "pre-algebra" classes I have taken? Two while I was still an undergrad back in the 80s actually - because in order to skip the langugage requirement you could take statistics instead, and I thought that might be easier than French. (it wasn't)

And when I realized I needed to go back I took 2 semesters of 'pre-algebra' at the community college here and then enrolled in college algebra. Probably about 1/3 of the way through the college algebra course I had to drop it. Mainly because my teacher was from Russia and I couldn't understand him at all. But it was too late to switch classes. Then I got enrolled in this BYU program and procrasinted the math as long as I could.

Which brings you up to speed to 2011. I just got my materials for my class about a week ago and I've been working on the 'pre-test' to see if I can even do this...

And I'm amazed.

A few years ago I read a book called "Outliers". (I'm sure many of you have heard of it...same guy who wrote "The Tipping Point"). In that book he explains why asian students tend to do better at math. And it has nothing to do with inherent asian abilities. It has to do with the way they look at math. And perseverance. Literally, they just work at it harder and longer. They don't give up. Success in math is hugely related to a specific personality type and that is the personality of someone who just keeps trying and keeps trying and keeps trying. You can look at all kinds of raw intelligence scores, and it has very little correlation to math success. It is all about doing the problem again. Looking at it a different way, etc.

You know, after I read that I got the idea that I could do that.

Math isn't something I'm bad at because I'm not smart. I am smart actually. It's something I'm afraid of. It's something I'm unfamiliar with. It's not my usual way of thinking. It's not something I have a natural gift for. But that's okay! Because that has nothing to do with doing it well!

So I quit telling myself I would suck at it. And I quit being so afraid of it.

I'm not finished working through the pre-test. It's rather slow going. But you have no idea how happy I am when I figure out how to do a problem and get the right answer.

I really wish I would have known this when I was still in high school or junior high.

Basically, math and I broke up a long time ago and I didn't think we could ever work out our differences. But it turns out, we're going to figure out our problems and start from scratch.

Which is all just to say to anyone reading this who might have a math phobia - you can do it too.

2 comments:

Suzanne Barker said...

You know Lezlee, I had some of those same issues. Mathe scared me and while I didn't every really fail it, I never did as well as in everything else.
Then several years ago, I wanted to go to graduate school. I had to to take the GRE and guess what? There is a big chunk of math in it. I got the prestudy books and studied my butt off.
And I discovere, lo and behold, I really could do it. And when I wasn't freaking out about it, I could do it even better.
The whole experience taught me that, If I really wanted something, I could do anything!

Heidi said...

I have heard some interesting things from that book, "Outliers". It's on my to read list.

For me, the hardest thing about math in college was that I waited too long between classes. I was always trying to remember what I was already supposed to know instead of focusing on the new stuff.

I think a good math teacher makes a world of difference.

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