Thursday, August 27, 2009

Math & Black Checkers

By Chandy Greenholt
Challenge I Tutor, North Carolina

April 15 to August 15th--approximately 4 months, 120 days, 2880 hours (see, I knew math was good for something)--seems like an eternity of rest for a teacher at the beginning of that time period when the last class is done. It seems like it's been about a week at the end of that time period when it’s time for another group of students to appear.

Not that we’re not glad to see them; just, like anyone else, we enjoy having more free time, but at the same time, working with a new group of eager young minds every year helps to keep us young. Now, if Father Time just had the same idea in mind...

I have a shorter amount of time to work with the group than Pam does, since I only teach math. At the same time, probably it’s the most challenging time since (1) it’s at the end of the day, when bright young minds turn into zombies, and (2) it’s a subject which petrifies about half of the participants before we even get started.

Having spent a lot of time on the basketball court and tennis court, I know that the hardest thing to do is win your first game in a tennis match and make your first shot in a basketball game. Once you’ve accomplished those things, the butterflies seem to reverse their field and fly off to harass someone else.

I think the same thing is true for math students. I like to ask questions...lots of questions...and I think that for a new student , breathing resumes after he or she gets the first question correct. As an ice-breaker, I probably should go around the room asking everyone what 2 + 2 is...

Math is challenging, there's no doubt about it. We start the first class pulling checkers out of a bag: 9 red and 1 black. I'm trying to make the point that the black checker represents a standard mistake students make or a missed concept early in the year. When you’re working problems later in the year, you reach in the bag and pull out the black checker (the concept you didn’t get) and it messes you up on the problem you’re trying to do.

If there is one goal I seek in both classes, it is to get high school students to see math not as a group of formulas and tricks to learn, but as a logical and (is this too much to dream of?) exciting way to see some of the structure God has given to the universe.

That first week I asked students “How?” you do certain operations (i. e. adding fractions), and then when they had gone through all of the explanation of the techniques, I asked, “Why does this work?” The first response almost invariably was, “That’s how the teacher told us to do it.”

Can I reach the goal of getting the students to understand for themselves why things work? That's a topic for the next installment...

Are you a teacher or a tutor with Classical Conversations? If you would like to share your story, I want to hear it! What do you enjoy, fear, or look forward at the start of each year? Send your stories via email to 1 Smart Mama.

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