But, despite this evidence, I never felt like I was good at math. I also disliked it, largely because I never felt like I really understood what was going on, no matter what my test scores may have said.
Because I had been in a G&T program in middle school, I entered high school one year ahead of schedule in math. I struggled with geometry freshman year and fought to retain consciousness throughout sophomore algebra II and trigonometry. The thought of pre-calculus made me ill, so in my junior year I escaped to ďDr.Kolbís math class for kids who hate mathĒ. (Not the official course title!) It wasnít a prestigious class, and the tests were pretty easy, but we actually did some deep mathematical thinking, at a relatively relaxed pace. It wasnít too bad- and I even learned something about logical thinking. Nevertheless, I was hugely relieved to escape from math my senior year. I made a promise to myself that Iíd never put myself through that (i.e., math) again. Thatís how I ended up applying only to colleges that allowed students to major in biology without taking calculus or statistics.
My mathematical epiphany happened in the summer of 1999, just before my senior year of college. I was doing a summer scientific research internship at Emory University, and my research had gone pretty well. My advisor told me that if I could do a good statistical analysis of the research, I could probably get the work published. Wow! Did I want that! With a little help from a professor of statistics and an old textbook he recommended, I taught myself the necessary math. I understood what I was doing and why I was doing it. For the first time in my life, math felt like an ally rather than an enemy.
Since then, I have continued to have a positive relationship with math, but I still vividly remember my days of math avoidance and anxiety. This combination has proved to be an ideal background for tutoring.
When I sit down with a student who becomes desperately anxious at the thought of doing math, Iím able to be compassionate (which is critical for gaining the studentís trust) and also to see a way out of the negative feedback loop. Each student is different, but there are some repeating themes that come up more often than not when I help students who donít like math. First, I find that it is important to acknowledge that not everyone has to love math or excel at math- but that a fundamental competency is possible for nearly everyone and will open doors in a wide variety of fields. Next, I think that it is very important to retreat to the last relevant topic where a student achieved mastery, and proceed from there (i.e., if a student is having trouble with algebraic fractions, it may be necessary to backtrack all the way to the idea of what a fraction actually is, review simple arithmetic fractions, then more complex arithmetic fractions, before finally returning to the topic of algebraic fractions). Finally, it is absolutely critical to underscore that math is not effortless- students who appear to ďjust know everythingĒ almost always study more than their peers and their classmates assume they do.
It is ironic that I once vowed to avoid math at all costs, but I now make my living largely by teaching math. Not only that, but I enjoy it. I think my story is a useful one because it demonstrates that early discomfort with a subject does not have to be the end of things- there is always an opportunity for a second chance.
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Article Added on Wednesday, January 20, 2010
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