“So what’s our total count for dinner?”, Stella shouts from the dining room.
“Ummmm….”. There are five of us here, and seventeen coming from our youth group in PA. In my mind I stand seventeen vertically, stack the five on top, recognize that three from the five bring the seventeen up to twenty and that leaves two more from the five.
“Twenty-two!” I shout back.
Such basic calculations may be automatic for some people but my mind still works just like it was trained to in first grade. We used Stern math blocks in number tracks to learn addition and subtraction, number partners, division and much more. It must have been the right way for me to learn and we must have done a lot of it because to this day, I add numbers larger than ten by mentally stacking them into a number track.
Math, like all of school, was fun and not very challenging until my eighth grade year. In eighth grade I was introduced to algebra. I struggled through it, determined to succeed like I did in every other area of academics. While my math teacher was not the most effective or inspired, I didn’t lack coaching. My dad is a high school math teacher who has taught various kinds of math to a range of ages over many years. His standard response to my requests for help with math even now is, “But it’s easy: it’s math!”.
I mastered Algebra ½ and headed on to my freshman year of high school. After eighth grade, this stuff was easy! I got a 99% on my Algebra final and remember thinking, “there is no way that anyone should get 99% on a high school math final, especially not me!” so by that point I had decided that I was not good at math and one exam was not going to convince me otherwise.
Tenth grade geometry class didn’t seem like math to me. I found it easy and enjoyable because I could see it and understand it visually. But while I cut out paper triangles and used SINE and COSINE, the knowledge of algebraic thinking I had acquired in the previous year was slowly fading into the background.
After the respite of geometry came Algebra II; in my dad’s figuring, about three levels above Algebra I. Our teacher was new on the job, though she taught other classes in the school. With her help, I kept on top of the materials, finding that if I worked hard both in class and on homework, I could keep my grades up, even though I did not feel that I had fully mastered much of the content. In March of that year, my sister got married. She was the first from our family and we left school and work for a week of celebration.
When I got back to the real world – meaning Algebra class – I was a whole week behind and hopelessly confused. The Saxon math method is designed to teach one skill, incorporate it into what’s already learned, then build off that to teach the next one. So missing just one week left a hole in my understanding of the material that I could not afford to work around. I struggled along but never really caught up. New lessons built on skills I hadn’t learned and my feeling that math was manageable disappeared. As I penciled in the third answer to the last question of my final exam, I decided that I was done with math class forever.
WVU thought otherwise. My SAT math score placed me in Math 126B which is a “four day college algebra” course. This wasn’t just any college algebra course either. It was taught by a calculus professor to whom math was as easy as breathing, and my particular section of the course was a control for an experiment involving the effect of math homework on final exam results. Whoever was running this experiment could have saved him or herself a lot of time because the results were not surprising. If you take two classes of 300 freshmen and throw difficult math at them and assign one class daily homework to practice concepts and assess understanding, and do nothing for the other class besides lecture and answer some of the questions to some extent, probably one class will do better on the final exam than the other. So our class was not assigned any homework and was not assessed between exams at all, and lectures were so fast and complicated that they didn’t help me much at all.
Math 126B did teach me something though. It taught me that there are letter grades other than A and B. I hit midterm with a solid D, panicked, began getting intensive tutoring from my genius roommate, and ended the semester with a high B.
Now I’m in math methods courses playing with colored tiles, number lines, and maybe even some Stern blocks. I feel like I’ve come a full circle but I’m not going around it again.