Thursday, February 19, 2015

What's In Your Desk Drawer? Day 14

Well, that's a strange ruler...

When I was in elementary and middle school, I would not have characterized myself as a "math guy." It's not that I was horrible at math. In fact, I must have been pretty good at math, because our school had a tracked math program. Somewhere early in our school career (grade 2?) we had a formal assessment that put us into one of three tracks. As kids, we called them the "smart class," the "normal class," and the "dumb class." Our teachers never named them that way for us, of course (but you get the idea...and they may have thought of it in those terms too.)

I was placed into the "smart class," and we were generally moving a bit faster through the curriculum, so that by the time I was in 6th grade, I was taking "7th grade math." And thus, by 8th grade, I was taking Algebra 1, which normally would have been a freshman math course.

Here's the catch: I was, I think, one of the "dumbest" kids in the smart class. If I had been in the "normal class," I probably would have been one of the "smartest" kids.

Why share this story?

I confess: I'm sort of feeling like the dumbest kid in the smart class right now. I am taking quantitative research methods this semester (that means statistics...which is an awful lot like math...) and while I generally feel like I understand the key ideas, I sort of feel like I'm foundering a bit.

Back to my middle school math story: I ended up taking Algebra 1 again as a freshman, and I did much better the second time around. (I'm hoping that history isn't going to repeat itself here! And honestly, I don't think it will...)

Eventually, I became a middle school math teacher, and I like to think that my own struggles with understanding math in middle school made me much more empathetic for my students with math anxiety, and I think I was a better teacher for it.

So, what's the deal with the weird ruler I have in my desk drawer? It's an artifact from my time as a middle school math teacher, and I still use it when I need a ruler.

But this is so much more than just a ruler: it's also a compass! Here's how it works:

It's actually a nifty compass!

This ruler/compass reminds me of a particular student I had, who struggled mightily with understanding the geometry unit in our 7th grade math curriculum. I was teaching constructions, which required students to use only a compass and straightedge to accurately draw different geometric figures. This poor student was overwhelmed. This child needed extra help, extra support, and maybe even a magic feather to learn how to fly. I had picked up a bunch of these ruler/compasses at a teacher supply store, and I figured it couldn't hurt. I gave one to my student, but I didn't just hand the tool over and figure all would work out. I spent some extra time with this student--demonstrating how to use the compass, practicing together, making sense of how constructions worked. I'm not trying to paint myself as a fabulous teacher...but in this case, my extra time and attention paid off.

I think the smile of understanding from a student who struggles finally gets it is the biggest payoff in the teaching profession.

So I'm struggling with my stats class...a lot like my former 7th grader struggled with geometry. The homework is hard. I am being stretched, often to the edges of what I am able to understand. The great news? I have a pretty fantastic teacher. He continually encourages us. Even on my last assignment, where I submitted it feeling like it was pretty rough--I was not expecting to get a good grade, honestly--he had some very helpful feedback, both on the things I was doing well, and the things I need to keep working on. My spirits were lifted; I had a new sense of "I can do this!" And this week in class, I asked a lot more questions, was more engaged in the work, and am feeling much more confident in my abilities.

This is a good reminder for me of the impact of the teacher. I think sometimes we learn the most when we struggle. But struggling can lead to frustration and a feeling of being overwhelmed too. So that's where the teacher might step in: demonstrating, providing feedback, reteaching, and encouraging.

So hats off to you, great teachers! You make a difference in the lives of your students.


(This post is part of a series about the weird stuff teachers have in their desk drawers. You can read more about this project here, and I hope you'll share the stories of the weird stuff you have in your desk too!)

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