My Math Story: Part 3

A year and a half after starting this series, figured might as well finish it after I saw Robert Kaplinsky re-post his!

My previous two posts talked about how I started off loving math as a young kid, then started hating it and feeling I wasn’t good at it in middle/high school. Only to fall in love with it at the very end of high school with an AP Statistics course!

In college I finally saw the beauty of mathematics through courses like History of Math, Problem Solving, Number Theory and even Abstract Algebra.

When I started teaching, a lot of things happened at once. I student taught at a school that was famous for being a bit on the rough side, with kids from low socio-economic backgrounds. Due in large part to my previous work at Sugar Pine Christian Camps and Valley Teen Ranch, this was exactly the population I wanted to serve.

So like any young teacher, I wanted to make an immediate impact. First day of class I remember when that door shut and all of a sudden there was no master teacher, no one would come check on me just because I was, “new,”  – it was 22 year old me and all of the teenagers (my birthday is August 26 so usually right at the start of the school year). I had them do math from the beginning to get acclimated to what I wanted my classroom to be like – active and engaging. I gave a short speech early on in the school year that, “If you slipped through Algebra and convinced your teacher you should pass but you know you shouldn’t have, talk to me and let’s fix it.

Afterwards a tall skinny sophomore approached me and joked that he was one of those kids. So for the next several weeks we met on Wednesdays at 7:30 (almost an hour before school began) to go over times tables, review addition and subtraction, and algebra. It was life-changing for me, because I realized that I could actually make a difference in these kids lives with mathematics. He was missing many concepts… I remember still he could add mixed fractions for example but had trouble subtracting them. He saw everything as a new skill to be learned as opposed to connected to previous skills.

Throughout my time at McLane High School I taught Geometry, Algebra I, Algebra II, “Alg/Geo III,”(hybrid course), California Exit Examination Prep, and even a study hall that I turned into an occasional History of Math course. When I went to teach middle school, these experiences teaching the upper level content were invaluable because I knew intimately how the lower concepts related to the later learning. To be honest I wonder how anyone teaching the same grade level can do a great job of it without being exposed to actually spending time teaching students above and below their, “target grade level”. It’s one thing to know about the concepts coming up – it’s another to teach it to groups of students and through their learning it, learn it better yourself.

Take polynomials. Until I started teaching about them to students, their relation to Exponents and number groupings wasn’t as clear as it should have been. (Eg any number is simply a simplified polynomial in base 10.) Through teaching students, seeing their misconceptions as a feedback loop for my own understanding was invaluable.

This brings me to wha thas become the main point of this blog – Personalized Learning. Most definitions/marketing about it talk only about the benefits to the student. We’re missing an entire part of the equation here. Dan Meyer recently had a discussion about personalized learning and this is something that he mentioned – the drawbacks of computer-based instruction on the teachers by having less feedback from the students and their peers about what they don’t understand in a qualitative context.

I learned so much more from my students over the years then they probably learned from me. Algorithms can’t replace smiles when students understand the big ideas. It was what made teaching interesting, exciting and enjoyable every single day.

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