Thursday, May 01, 2008

My Math Makeover

If you would have told me 10 years ago that I would be teaching a math class at a cooperative school, I would have laughed at you. I have been, for most of my life, a math-a-phobic. It's true I managed to get decent grades in my math classes at school, but that was the result of hard work, drudgery, a lot of prayer, and a little luck.

When I began to homeschool my children, I started to think about my attitude toward math. I did not want to pass along a math aversion to the next generation. My hope was that my own kids would not dread or fear this subject and that they would connect its orderliness to the God who designed an orderly universe. I was not so ambitious, however, to set myself a goal of creating math LOVERS.

I began my "math makeover" with a book by Marilyn Burns, entitled Math: Facing an American Phobia. It was a fantastic start, written by a math educator who finds delight in real-world applications rather than in rows of "right" answers on a worksheet. For me, she put to death the myth that there is only ONE way to come up with the answer to a math problem. If you had to quickly tabulate the sum of 37 plus 50 would you first add 40 to 50 and then subtract 3? Or would you make an addition problem in your mind, lining up the 37 above the 50 as you would have written it on the blackboard at school? Different strokes for different folks. There is nothing wrong with either way of doing it. I think Marilyn gave me a warm little boost as if to say, "You can do this, and although it may never become your passion, you
can learn to enjoy math."

At about this time I had to select math curriculum for my oldest child. I remember being so overwhelmed with all the choices-- interviewing veteran teachers, poring over reviews, looking at a myriad of samples. I ended up making what would be a good choice for our family of 4 children: Math-U-See. There are many things to like about Math-U-See, but what contributed to my "math makeover" were the video segments in which Steve Demme teaches the teacher HOW to present the concepts. This man has a bag of slick math tricks, jokes, and quirky explanations that hold your interest and make learning painless, if not fun. This curriculum was a perfect fit for all but one of my children (and that is another story), but what happened as I used it was that I gained confidence in my ability to explain math concepts.

People who write math books have what is playfully called the "math gene", and because they do, their explanations appeal mostly to other kindred spirits who share the "math gene", while language and word-lovers are left scratching their heads. Steve Demme's jokes and stories and games added the language dimension that helped me immensely.

What I didn't know at the time is that
the curriculum really did not matter very much. It was my attitude that mattered. A good teacher uses curriculum only as a tool; her enthusiasm and confidence can make cake out of dry bread crumbs.

I have more to say about my previous mention of symbolic thinkers (math geeks) versus language lovers (word geeks), which I will address separately in another post. It took me a few years to realize that there is a complementary, even synergistic relationship between the two. I'll save that until next time.

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