In addition to my other duties at Peachtown, I also teach math to the upper classroom students. Teaching math was not a natural fit for me, but then I have always found myself working a little outside my comfort zone. I meant to be a writer, and then I thought about medicine, but in the end, I studied music as an undergraduate and social policy as a graduate student, and found myself running a little school and teaching math.
When I young, I was a fine math student, but it certainly wasn’t my native language. Math is a prickly study for those not inclined to grasp the entirety of a problem and revel in the calculation of the answer. Yet there’s nothing quite so satisfying as puzzling through a problem to arrive at a correct answer. Still, in my younger years, not being able to decipher a problem could always bring me to tears. I like to think that this proclivity to frustration helps me understand and empathize with students that just don’t get an assignment, or find themselves in a muddle, which becomes intractable.
Too many students spend far too much time at home with math work and tears, or papers wadded up in anger and thrown across the room. Unlike some other subjects, math is hard to fake. You can’t just write some roundabout explanations and throw in some colorful language to mask your uncertainty.
The norm in most school programs is providing in-class instruction, completing some examples and walking through the concepts and algorithms before sending students off with pages of problems for homework. This is all well and good if you really understand the instruction and if you remember what you did in class that day, or the day before. A little bit of day dreaming or a slip of memory can be a student’s Waterloo.
I can relate to this, having spent the better part of a week trying to convince the office photocopier that I do not want to use the bypass tray for all my copies, trying every combination of commands, reading the instruction manual, adjusting paper trays and asking others to give it a try, and I have occasionally gotten it to cooperate. But then it reverts to its worst inclinations, and I have to begin again, repeating all the steps, because I can’t remember which sequence worked. At this point, I am usually pretty frustrated. Working on a set of math problems can feel a lot like this.
For many students, this is a nightly ritual: wrangling problem sets, never sure of oneself, trying again and again to get it right, sometimes with success and sometimes not. When I was in high school, I loved doing my math problems with my friend, who was a great math student. I actually have fond memories of sitting at a cafeteria table working out geometry proofs. With a little help, writing out proofs seemed like good fun. This was a revelation for me.
Having had these experiences, when I started teaching math, it seemed like a no-brainer to recreate that pleasant memory. At Peachtown, students get their instruction, learn about concepts, see examples of applications, and then everyone works through their problems in class where a misstep doesn’t become a frustration that results in tantrums and tears. As long as students are encouraged to work through their problems with focus and perseverance, a little redirection or a hint for a correction provides a quick, positive reinforcement and no harm is done. In the end, more work gets done, a better attitude is cultivated, and students can feel successful and encouraged to continue their studies.
I am a broken record on the topic, but making school fun is not optional, it is essential. In the midst of concentration and hard work, a little levity maintains perspective and a little help keeps students moving in the right direction. This is a natural way to learn. And, back in the office, sometimes two or three of us cluster around the copy machine; we watch each other try the wrong buttons, make aimless suggestions to one another, listen to the beeping error message, and we laugh and try again.