Middle School and an Astronaut
The story of my math learning starts like any other – in middle school! Elementary school I was good in math, and went to the advanced 7th grade math class at La Joya Middle School. I did well there too, but problems started in Algebra I. Mr. Gonzalez was a great teacher from what I remember, explaining things and also the baseball coach – which I tried out for but did not make the team. I’d joined the baseball card club just to know him and have it help my chances, but to no avail. Somewhere in 8th grade I started having trouble, and in fact I almost failed the final test, but Mr. Gonzalez figured I just had test anxiety so was able to pass me along to not retake Algebra I, but instead take regular (not honors) geometry instead. But let’s back up a little.
In the midst of math struggle something really cool happened. My school was based on space and even named for the four space shuttles. They successfully persuaded Jim Lovell – the commander of the Apollo 13 mission played by Tom Hanks in the movie – to visit the school. Somehow I was asked to be the 8th Grade Boy selected to lead him on a tour of the school along with one other representative from each grade/gender.
You have to understand – at that point in my life I was already a pretty big geek. I’d built computers from spare parts (thanks Mr. Harrell!), I’d read books on the space program, drew ‘blueprints’ for space vehicles based on things like solar sails and nuclear weapons. I’d asked for a $140 microscope when I was in sixth grade and conducted experiments with a logbook and everything on things I found in the backyard. So I had read biographies of Jim Lovell and knew a lot about him, and was pretty much in awe. At the very end of the tour, I asked him what it took to be an astronaut. He said, as we were walking to the office:
Take a lot of math and a lot of science classes. – Capt Jim Lovell, 1996
That wasn’t exactly what I wanted to hear as I was starting to struggle in math, but it stuck with me.
My geometry class was taught by Mrs. Downs in the cafeteria right before lunch. I’d always been in GATE/honors classes, so being in a so-called regular class was a decided change of pace. Not only was the class larger – it felt like 40 kids – but the expectations were lower. There were definitely some bright spots to the class – I remember the Grazing Goat (CPM!) problem to this day as well as printing out on a color printer a cool poster about the r:r^2:r^3 theorem. Algebra 2 was the following year and this was the first class I really struggled with from the start. Specifically, I still remember getting an 18/100 on an exponents exam in the first quarter and ended up the semester with a 79.565 – which rounded up to a B-. I struggled with this class and admit that a lot of it was me blaming the teacher as well. It was a little awkward because he went to my church, and even my friends parents went up to him and told him how hard I was working in his class. But I went into that class almost every day at lunch to work and tried to make sense of things. It didn’t really help but I passed the class with a B by the end thanks to being able to make up tests.
In retrospect, I think part of what happened was that the curriculum had switched to CPM, but the teacher’s methods and his tests hadn’t. (Another reason I feel things like OpenEd acting as support can significantly help kids now.)That, combined with my relatively weak Algebra I performance and lower expectations/workload the previous year and it was a perfect storm. Yet, struggling in Algebra 2 was a blessing in disguise as I definitely knew what it meant to struggle in math despite, “trying.”.
Trigonometry my Junior year was fine – I got an A through working hard but was ready for what I hoped was my last year of math ever senior year! I even took Statistics instead of Calculus because I figured I was going to be done with math so take the easier route, right?
Instead, I found that I loved statistics. Perhaps it was because we got to use graphing calculators a lot, or because I had the same teacher as Geometry – Mrs. Downs – or because I started to actually do really well in it. What made me like statistics was the real world application, the fact that it wasn’t memorizing things but instead useful and applicable to everyday problems and situations. Mrs. Downs encouraged me to tutor some of her Algebra and Geometry students, because she knew I’d done well in her class and was doing well in Statistics. I tutored a few students with varying results… one ended up crying with her mom when I asked her to try and memorize multiplication tables, anther got caught smoking weed after a few months of me tutoring him. But the experience stuck – I enjoyed helping students where I had struggled, and the money didn’t hurt -$10 an hour at the time!
During my junior and senior year, I also got involved with a local computer company the Computer Gym running a kids computer camp over the summer for them, teaching things like computer repair, desktop publishing, and making websites with tripod.com (super old website here and watch out for the popups) My goals were to be a junior high math teacher and use technology to help teach it, and I was well on my way to working with kids for a living.