Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Defeating My Arch Nemesis: Using Writing to Learn Math

When I was in first grade, a skinny six-year old sporting long piggy tails and buck teeth, I quickly learned that math was very hard for me.  Longingly I watched my friends go out for recess while I sat inside and attempted to fix the math problems I had done incorrectly earlier. I just couldn't do them right.

And when I couldn't do them right, my teacher would sit me in the corner. Humiliating. I was the girl constantly in tears in the corner, and the cute boy in class (who was a math whiz) thought I was some sort of weirdo (which I am....but still).

The experience created an instant mental math block that I have fought  my entire life. The rest of my grade school career was bleak in the math department, and I have to admit that I never passed a high school Algebra class.

When I started my college career at Parkland College, back in the mid-90s, I had to take basic math. I was not surprised and slowly worked my way up to beginning Algebra. The first day of my college Algebra class sent me into nervous fits. I felt like my six-year old self, only with straighter teeth and shorter hair.

I was determined to do better, and I only wanted to take this class one time. Due to the fact that I came from a large family with not so large of an income, it was up to me to pay for my schooling, and I knew that I did not want to pay to re-take an Algebra class. So, I had resolved to work my butt off and figure this whole math thing out even if it caused my hair to go prematurely gray.

I walked up to my professor before class, wish I could remember her name because she changed my life, and told her of my math woes. She smiled and nodded and asked me what my interests were. At the time my interests circulated around my boyfriend (so stupid!), but I managed to say something like, "Well, I really like English and Theater." She then told me that she had some tricks up her sleeves that could help me with my struggles, and we started class.

Well, I didn't believe her.

I had been told, by many teachers and tutors, that they knew exactly what to do to "fix" me and cure me of my math ignorance. So naturally I just took a deep breath preparing to weather the storm.

After my professor had handed out the syllabus, explained the schedule, and let us introduce ourselves, she dismissed the class for the day--then quickly asked me to stay for a few minutes. She told me that I would need a separate notebook for the class that would become my Algebra Writing log.  I looked at her like she was crazy.

She laughed.

"Kelly, have you ever done journal entry work in your writing or English classes?" she asked. I nodded yes and told her that journaling was one of my favorite things to do.  She then told me that I would be doing this for my homework and in-class activities.  My professor took out a notebook and showed me exactly what I would be writing in my log--it looked something like this:
  • Date
  • Topic or Chapter/Assignment Name
  • Description of pages read in textbook, lecture notes, and in-class activity notes
  • Main points from the section being assigned in a bullet point list
  • Summary of main points from book/class written in paragraph form
Not only did she have me do this weekly math log, but she also assigned me paragraphs to write.  My professor would write an equation on the board each week, usually on Monday, and by Friday a paragraph was due to her that explained how to solve the problem and why I had decided to solve it in that way. 

I was kind of shocked that I was using writing do help me understand math.  I had never thought that "math" people wrote. In the article "Writing to Learn Mathematics" Bernadette Russek says, "Contrary to popular belief mathematicians must write and must write well...Writing is a valuable assessment tool. It is used to assess attitudes and beliefs, mathematics ability, and ability to express ideas clearly" (36).  Russek also suggests that writing is often used in the math department to " doors of communication with students who may have math anxiety or who have 'I hate math' feelings, students who have never really 'spoken' to their mathematics professors before" (36). 

I feel as if Russek might have been directing that last bit directly at me....

Thanks to my professor's willingness to use writing in the math classroom, I passed beginning Algebra with an A. The first A I had ever received in a math class my entire life. I'm still proud of that A.

I moved onward and upward and eventually managed to tackle a college Algebra class. I did not get another A, but I did get a B, and I was able to mark math off of the list of classes I needed to take to finish school.

I really, really, really wanted to take my passing math grades to my former first grade teacher and say, "HA! Take that! See! If you would have just been willing to teach me math in a language I understood, instead of sitting me in a corner, I would have been done with this a LONG TIME AGO."

I wisely did not do that, but man did I ever dream of it.

After I completed my general education requirements, I thought that I would never have to take a math class again. However, my children have proved me wrong (as they usually do), and I find myself helping them with their math homework. Unfortunately, my kids also struggle with math and I sometimes feel as if maybe I should not be the person helping them. 

It's kind of like the blind leading the blind.  So, we write about math. Each day we write out their assignment in paragraph form and then we talk about it and pretty soon those math problems are getting solved correctly. 

If you would like to read the rest of Bernadette Russek's article it can be found here.  As Writing Across the Curriculum becomes more prominent on college campuses and within K-12 curriculum, I'm sure that writing in the math class will be used more often.

EIU President William Perry has used writing in his math classroom, and in an April 2011 interview with the EIU Writes Blog writers (found here) Perry said that: "...mathematics has a language all its own, you all know; you’ve taken math, so you do a math homework; it’s one set of language. But now if you’re going to talk about how that relates to maybe football head injuries or supply and demand, you know these kind of things, you have to interpolate that for your audience. You have to convert mathematical concepts to plain English, and so that’s a valid exercise because I think in all of our lives, we’re always interacting with multiple audiences." 

To me multiple audiences means multiples discourses, which then equals various types of verbal and cultural languages. In a perfect world teachers will be able to teach in a method that answers the needs of all of their students, but that perfect world is more than likely not going to happen in my lifetime.

So, instead of waiting for that perfect world to arrive, try remembering the skinny little six-year old sitting in the corner of her first grade classroom. Don't be afraid to speak to students in languages they understand--even if that means writing in a math classroom.

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