What follows is a piece I wrote as an assignment from Justin Lanier‘s smOOC called “Math is Personal.” If you are just starting out as a math teacher or are a seasoned vet, I highly recommend participating in Justin’s course. You will think more about your personal views about learning, teaching and mathematics than you normally allow yourself during the school year.
So here goes…
This is the story of a boy. This boy loved reading and writing. He loved reading books from “Goosebumps” to “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” to “Of Mice and Men”. He read and he wrote as much as he could. When things were good, he wrote about them. When things were bad, he wrote about them. One day in sixth grade, he had gotten mugged on the way to school and he told his teacher about it. His teacher told him to write about it. So he did, and it made him feel better. Writing was his life and as he grew older it became more and more important to him.
In high school the boy thought there were math people and ELA people. So he took AP English and History. The boy stayed as far away from higher level math courses as he could.
In college he decided to double major in literature and writing. He read canonical poetry and short stories and he wrote poetry and short stories. He had been invited to join a writer’s workshop with a published author and he thought maybe he could make a life as a writer. Towards the end of the workshop every student got a one on one sit down with the author. As the author read his story he tried to read the reactions from his face. Was he I impressed? Was he embarrassed? Was he unsure even what to say? What was his face saying? Then he looked up.
“It’s good,” he said, “quite good in fact. Out of all of these kids, your stuff reminds me of myself the most.”
That was it. The boy knew he was meant to be a writer, it was decided!
“But, because of that, I need to tell you something.”
The boy’s heart dropped. What was about to happen?
“What are you planning to do after college?” the author asked.
“I don’t know. I was thinking of writing.” The boy answered sheepishly.
“Don’t.” The author said looking the boy straight through his eyes and into his soul. “Being a writer is horrible! Truly, horrifically horrible.” The author continued, “being a writer takes all the fun out of writing. Your life is full of rejection and void of the necessities of life, like money, food, and rent. I was lucky to just make it through the slush pile at the New Yorker.”
“The slush pile?” The boy ventured.
“It’s the pile of writing that the New Yorker gets everyday and some dope has to go through it all. I just happened to get picked. It was luck.” The author looked over the boy’s shoulder picturing his past failures and successes. The boy’s dreams of being a writer were vanishing with every word the author uttered. His dreams buried in the New Yorker slush pile, papers heaped on top of his dreams until they were lost and to never be found again.
“You should get a good job,” the author conjectured, “be a teacher or something.”
“Everyone says that.” The boy answered feeling naked and humbled.
After he graduated college the boy went from job to job never finding his niche. Retail was too capitalistic for him. Non-profit organizations were too unorganized for him. He just could not find a foothold anywhere. Then after several summers as a summer camp supervisor, he decided it was time to explore the world of education. He enrolled in a local master’s program and went from there. Every class he took enthralled him and every observation and student teaching experience rewarded him. In his first job in education as a first grade para-professional he was tasked with passing out the snack before recess. The boy had a box of goldfish and walked slowly up to the first outstretched hand. He poured a random amount into the hungry, empty hand and said, “You get six goldfish. Did you get enough?” The student feverishly counted the goldfish and proudly, but frustratingly announced she had not received her six allotted goldfish.
“How many more do you need?” The boy asked not realizing his head teacher had stayed behind and seen the boy’s snack task.
Later that day the boy’s head teacher sat him down one on one and said, “You’re a natural. What are you planning to do after grad school?”
“I don’t know. I was thinking of teaching.” The boy answered sheepishly.
“Great!” The head teacher said excitedly, “we need more people like you!”
So the boy continued to pursue teaching and got his master’s in general education. He searched for a job. It was harder than he thought, until through social media the boy got in contact with his sixth grade teacher. The same teacher who had once encouraged him to write. Now he was the principal at a special education school.
“Come work at my school,” the sixth grade teacher turned principal implored, “you’ll be great! We need people like you.”
“But I’ve never worked with students with disabilities before” the boy answered.
“They won’t break!” The sixth grade teacher turned principal responded, “just come and see. You’ll love the kids!”
The boy took the invitation and the sixth grade teacher turned principal was right. He did love the kids and he took the job.
“I can’t wait to teach ELA and social studies!” The boy told the sixth grade teacher turned principal.
“Well, here’s the thing,” the sixth grade teacher turned principal ventured, “I need you to teach math. You’ll be great!”
“I’ve never taught math before and I was an English and writing major in college.” The boy pleaded.
“Math is where we need you. You’ll work with the math consultant, she’s a genius, you’ll be fine!”
“I guess.” The boy said trying to convince himself that he would in fact be fine.
The rest of the year the boy worked with the math consultant. She helped him understand that math class should not only be computation and calculation, but also conceptual understanding and problem solving.
That summer he went to the Math in the City summer institute at City College in New York City. Here the boy met other math teachers, some new like himself, who were trying to move away from rote computation practice and the rules that dominated their schooling. These teachers were trying to understand the development of math in the mind of their students and the boy was able to use this information to help him see where his students were delayed developmentally.
The boy was now not an ELA person or a math person, he was just a person. A person who now saw the value in different learning experiences, support and feedback. He also knew he wanted to share that discovery with a whole new generation of students.