80% of the classes I teach are algebra I, consisting mostly of freshmen. I’ve always had the feeling that math is a subject in which you can be “born good.” I’m living proof. There was nothing I did as a youngster to become proficient in math, yet, somehow, I got it. Lucky for me, too, because I really couldn’t say that about myself in any other segment of academia.
In our school district, the very top math students in junior high take algebra I as 7th graders and geometry as 8th graders, so by the time they’re freshmen, they’re taking algebra II. Then there’s the next wave of students who take algebra I as 8th graders and, if they score high enough, take geometry as freshmen. I get the next group who, while they are, by and large, solid college prep students (even brilliant in some areas), many just don’t like math. A fairly high percentage of them are, however, into sports.
For anyone who knows me, or who has frequented this blog, it will come as no shock to hear that I use stories when I’m teaching. One that I use every year is that math is easier than sports. “No way!” is usually the response I get greeted with when I make that statement. I, then, explain how, in math, nobody’s playing defense on you (team sports) i.e., while you’re reading the problem, there’s no one waving their hands in your face, trying to distract you and when you put your pencil to the paper, nobody’s slapping at your hand (or worse). In the case of individual sport athletes, if you work hard and do the best you can, you’ll nearly always get the problems right, i.e. there’s no first place, runner up, etc. Everybody’s a winner, independent of who got it first or with the fewest steps. You’re truly rewarded for hard work.
Of course, in this day and age of skepticism, there are some non-believers, but you’d be surprised at how many of them, realizing that, although they may have a dislike for the subject, or struggle to understand it, can see that paying attention, doing the homework, asking questions and, in some cases, getting some extra help can result in success in an area they’d never thought they’d find it. Others have tried to get the kids to like math; I’ve tried this approach and it works as well as most anything else I’ve attempted.
Possibly the reason there’s been some success with this strategy is I’ve kept in mind what the poet, e.e. cummings, said:
“The hardest fight a person has to fight is to live in a world where every single day someone is trying to make you be someone you don’t want to be.”