Recently I wrote a few sentences about mathematics that could have been construed as less than supportive of the discipline. Yes, the word “hate,” was used, as in, “I hate math.” And I admit making comments on number-related activities that were interpreted by some ardent supporters of math as hostile, combative and insolent. One perturbed reader, former high school math teacher John T. Goegel, went to lengths to posit the notion that my lack of “determination and sweat equity” was akin to being an historic quitter of the highest order, writing, “Where would our country be if the occasionally dispirited General Washington and his ill-equipped citizen soldiers had given up during the long six-year struggle for independence?”
This is why I’m sitting in the front row of a seventh grade math class, surrounded by twenty eight pre-teens who are smarter than me. It’s never a good idea to make fun of math.
A few minutes ago, as I stood in the office with Diane and the school principal, Tom Sica, I admit being a little nervous, anxious the kids would smell my lack of math skills like a portly toddler smells cake batter. “Take a deep breath – you’ll be fine!” Diane reassures me in her soft, southern accent. You can always count on a middle school teacher to find the good in everyone.
As we walk down the hallway, I wonder if these children know how bereft of math skills I am. The last math class I sat in was in early May, 1985 as Brother Eck extolled the virtues of pre-calculus. I avoided taking a single math class in college, and even though I was an elementary school teacher for five years, I was never beyond arm’s length of the teacher’s edition. If I landed in an uncompromising math-related position with my fifth graders, I’d use that saving grace of every numerically paralyzed instructor, the phrase, “Well, what do you think the answer is?” as I sprinted back to the answer book.
We arrive at the class, and I’m ready to atone for the sin of hating math. Diane’s students wait in line outside the door. Somehow Principal Sica is here too. Is he making sure I apply myself today? Brushing up on his own word problem skills? He sits in the back so it’s tough to discern his motives.
Mrs. Barlow (we’re no longer on a first name basis) starts the class, reminding us we’ll spend today, “Writing equations that model the problem,” emphasizing the importance of “solving for x.” I’m sitting in between my new pals Brendan and Cam, and I nod like I know what “solving for x” means. I don’t.
Our first problem reads, “Chuck jogged the same distance on Tuesday and Friday, and 8 miles on Sunday for a total of 20 miles for the week. Find the distance Chuck jogged on Tuesday and Friday.” The boys are off, scribbling into their notebooks, apparently solving for x. What’s clear is my attempt to just come up with the answer isn’t cool. Cam suggests, nicely, “You have to write an equation that solves the problem.”
“Yeah,” Brendan adds, “Because what happens when you don’t know the answer?” He’s not asking a question, like he’s saying, “How will you ever be anything if you don’t believe in yourself?” How true, Brendan, how very true. They help me write an equation and follow the rules to help solve for x. We arrive at the right answer as Mrs. Barlow walks the class through the approach.
There’s no time for lollygaggers at Word Problem Boot Camp, and we’re on to the next set. Hannah and Sophie replace Brendan and Cam, and I ask Sophie what she thinks of word problems. She doesn’t hesitate to say, “It gets easier as you practice it."
“The sum of five even integers is 0. Find the integers.” What? I have absolutely no idea what this means. How can you add five things and get nothing? Is this pre-algebra or pre-philosophy?
My new partners write down what starts like a nice line of numbers but ends up looking like a plumbing schematic for an aircraft carrier. Sophie and Hannah are in their own world. I ask a few questions and take diligent notes as the girls solve the problem in a creative way. Negative numbers! Who knew? Before we switch again, Mrs. Barlow asks whether zero is an integer, and as they ponder the question, I have a series of deep thoughts about the value of nothing.
Josh and Eric sidle up to solve a two-step equation involving birthdays. As we work through the problem, they wait patiently for me to catch on, and by the time we’ve determined “Reid’s value is represented by x+14,” I can see what Mrs. Barlow’s talking about. Her system is making sense, and as the boys swap out with another pair, I’m feeling like I might finally belong in a middle school math class.
Caitlyn and Anita arrive to tackle a complex problem involving a school band competition, fund raising and wrapping paper. I’m warming to the task and start to understand what solving for x actually means. Caitlyn, however, has no time for a forty-six year old man with equation issues, and she blazes through the problem, blurting out the answer without writing anything down. She speaks softly as she puts pencil to paper to show her work. At this point, Anita knows enough to let Caitlyn do her thing, and I follow her lead. Caitlyn whips through the multi-step equation and even makes an off-hand comment about the distributive property. I just bask in her glow and regret leaving my tax returns in the car.