As a high school student wayyyy back in the late 1970’s I learned math in the traditional procedural way. I could do it… I didn’t care about it…X was equal to three – whoopty do – who cares?
I did find some uses for geometry. I once used a nail and string to lay out a ninety degree angle in the dirt so we could build a perpendicular fence in our cattle pens. I remember to this day how cool that was.
In college I finally became good at algebra just by doing massive amounts of algebra. My degree was in mechanized agriculture so we did many calculations involving algebra. I became fascinated with the ability to use math to solve problems.
I was not required to take calculus in college. Here’s the first “hit” in my mathematical evolution: calculus was a “flunk out” class at my university. That means it was a course used to sort students - to separate the wheat from the chaff. I didn’t “need” calculus, so why subject myself to the meat grinder? Who needed the risk to their GPA? So I didn’t take calculus although I retained an interest in the subject for many years. I always wanted to “see” the beauty in the math that everyone talked about. I was envious and jealous of those who were “good at math.”
I was self-employed and ran a successful business for 20 years…Then I found a passion for teaching and made a career change. I had many choices for what to teach, but chose science. Who doesn’t want to be paid to set things on fire and blow stuff up?
I taught 8th grade science for 9 years. My math and algebra skills served me well. I always felt I approached math differently than the “real” math teachers. I thought there were two reasons: #1) Science and math classes looked at math differently, and #2) I wasn’t a “real” math teacher – surely they knew what they were doing.
In the past year I had an opportunity to move to high school and teach physics. It’s here that I believe my story begins to have some interest.
Some confessions: I have 3 hours of college mathematics training. Are you appalled? I took pre-calculus in college. You know the story about calculus. I do have 16 hours of college physics – some of it the “cowboy physics” that is conceptual in nature.
I love physics. I love that we can take everyday events and quantify them and explain them with formulas and mathematics. That is endlessly fascinating to me. I will also confess that I sometimes struggle with the mathematics. There is some of the calculus based physics that escapes me due to my lack of calculus knowledge.
Well, I applied for the physics job and was accepted. I took the certification test – 120 questions and only missed three. I am now certified 4-12 for all sciences. I say these things to point out the paradox – I have only 3 hours of college credit in math yet I have passed 16 hours of college physics. I love physics yet I don’t know calculus… Something doesn’t quite add up…
So I jumped into high school physics. I had two sections of GT/Honors physics. I will now confess I was very intimidated by the high school math teachers. Not for anything they had done, but rather for my perception of the knowledge I assumed they had. The physics teacher I replaced taught AP Calculus as well and was a brilliant man. He was also arrogant and made me feel inferior every time I was around him. I was jealous of his math ability.
I muddled through the year – and learned a couple of things. I realized over time that I was actually pretty good at math. I ended up having to explain logarithms to the algebra teacher…e and the natural log actually make sense to me. I asked the calculus teacher for help and he couldn’t solve the problem either…One teacher didn’t know about the “E” key and scientific notation on the calculator. I realized I could “hang” with these folks.
I took the Calculus One MOOC from Ohio State taught by Dr. Fowler and got a certificate of distinction. I realized I actually knew many of the concepts already intuitively, I just didn’t know the computational methods and terminology.
I also learned that my students continuously commented that I “do things differently.” It wasn’t until this Stanford class that I realized what the students were talking about. I have learned that I think about mathematics structurally. I love using the math to understand the world around me and that’s how I teach it. Ok, let’s be honest – sometimes I’m sort of learning things along with the kids. Is that frightening to anyone? Well you know what? I think I’m comfortable with that now.
If the choice is to take physics with me and see a reason and an application for mathematics and to have some FUN with mathematics, or take a traditional math class that breaks students down, I’ll chose my class.
Don’t think I’m disrespecting the math teachers at my school – I’m not. They are victims of the curriculum and the mandates from the state. They work very hard. The AP Calculus teacher is known for his sweaty arm pits and sweaty brow that forms as he teaches – he works that hard – and he loves the kids.
I have learned that I actually have the perfect job. The state lifted my end-of-course test. I teach physics as I want to teach it – to as high a level as I can. My principal supports me and stays out of my way. I have the freedom to teach the math anyway I want. This Stanford course has given me “permission” to do many things that are not mainstream but resonate with the truth of their effectiveness.
I have learned that I love math. I regret not having more math education – but has learning math through the years separately from formal education been the reason I see it differently????? I wonder….
I think I will continue to acquire as much formal training in math as I can. I plan to filter that knowledge through the life experiences I have had regarding math. I am content that I am serving my students well. On paper, I may not seem the ideal choice as their teacher, but I am content I am helping them find joy in learning to solve problems.
Here is perhaps the oddest statement I will make, especially from someone with a whopping 3 hours of college math credits: I am making it a mission in my life to help students and adults stop being afraid of – and hating math. It just kills me when teachers recoil from a freshman who has the temerity to ask for help with their algebra. These teachers throw their hands up defensively and claim they are not good at math imploring the poor student to ask someone else for help. What the &%$?
I want to be a part of the solution for our kids. Maybe I can help best by modeling how to learn math in front of my students – not being afraid to show my weaknesses. I feel pretty naked right now confessing them to you…