Sunday, January 8, 2017

My Math Autobiography

Once upon a time, math and arithmetic was fun for me.  I enjoyed it, I found it easy and fun.

Then integers happened toward the end of junior high school.  And suddenly nothing made sense.  Well, that isn't TOTALLY true.  Multiplying and dividing integers had a very simple pattern: easy to catch on to, but adding and subtracting integers?   Why not just teach me Chinese....while speaking Russian?  That's how much sense it made to me.

And my teacher had only one way to "explain" it... using a horizontal number line.  Being spacially dyslexic, this was the worst possible way for me.  It was his ONLY tool.

When I got to Algebra 1, I was supposed to already be fluent in this integer-speak.  I learned process quickly.  I absolutely understood how to do and undo.....except I couldn't add or subtract with those integers!  I was just guessing!!!

Midterms came.  I studied so hard: practiced by doing and re-doing old homework assignments and tests.  Our teacher called us up to his desk during silent work time to "stage whisper" our exam grade to us.  I didn't hear him say "C" a grade I was wasn't an ssss sound.  Could all my hard work have paid off?  "Excuse me?" I said.  His reply came through loud and clear, and in the silence all could hear him say:  "D.  As in Dumb."

I wanted to die.

I was truly crushed.  And for a while, I was convinced he was right.  But I knew I was good in other subjects, REALLY good, so this just didn't make sense that I was Dumb in Math.

I muddled through that year, and Geometry was better.  I think I saw all those proofs as puzzles.  But then I got an Algebra 2 teacher who asked me if I could read (I asked for help on several word problems everyone else was too afraid to ask about).

I snapped.  I was done being called stupid.

"Yes, Ma'am, I can.  There is a sign down the hall that says "Guidance" and I think I will take myself down there."  This from skinny, timid Tina  The whole class fell silent as I gathered my books and bag and left.  I had never, ever done such a thing in all the years we had been in school together.

I deposited my stuff in Guidance, told the secretary I would be right back to see my counselor, and then went to my Assistant Principal's office to let him know I had just walked out of my math class.

"Come in, Tina," the Assistant Principal said.  "What seems to be the problem?"

"Well, I just walked out of Mrs. O's class, Dad, and I wanted to let you know.  I was not disrespectful, but I did walk out and will serve whatever detention she or you feel I should get for that.  But I will not go back to that class.  I am going to Guidance to have my Algebra 2 class switched.  You can talk with her and let me know what my consequences are."

Dad nodded, told me to go on my way and he would talk to Mrs. O.  He asked me to close the door on the way out.  I was nearly in the hall when I heard him erupt in laughter.

It was a long, slow climb back to some semblance of confidence in my math ability.  Some decent college experiences helped, but I still stayed away from math as much as I could.

I was trained to teach reading, and it was because of students with learning disabilities who came to me for reading help that math and math education returned to my life. Turned out many of my tutees also needed math help.  These students all struggled with concepts I had struggled with.  Together we came up with ways that helped them or I would think and think and think of how to make this more visual or more hands on for them.  Sometimes they showed ME things that someone else had showed THEM.

In the end, it was my students who made me a better math student, and eventually a better math teacher.  I am forever grateful to them, as my students continue to challenge me and make me grow.