Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Problem with Math: Problems

I am a math teacher, and it quite frankly amazes me that my life insurance rates are not prohibitively high because of it.

Periodically, I tutor young men and women in my neighborhood. Often they are having some trouble because they missed a few days of math clas, or maybe they just don’t quite understand their teacher as well as they’d like. So they come to me, and we do some problems together at my kitchen table.

I get angry. Not at the kids; they are generally doing the best they can with whatever they have been given. But I get angry at the problems they are assigned. And I figure if I, as a math teacher – as someone who is not afraid of sentences that begin, “Let H be a compact Hausdorff space. . . .,” as someone who periodically integrates secant cubed just to see if I still “got it” – if I get angry, what chance do the kids possibly have?

See, it isn’t ever enough to teach a concept, then see if kids can apply that concept. No. We have to teach several concepts, then make horrible examples in which they all apply at once. And throw in some ugly fractions at the same time. I’ll give you an example of what I mean:

Problem: Graph y = 7 + sin x.
Student: “No problem; that 7 just moves the graph up 7 units.” (Hums happily while sketching graph)

Problem: Graph y = 3sin x.
Student: “Easy. That 3 just stretches the graph 3 up and 3 down. I can do that.” (More happy humming)

Problem: Graph y = cos 4x.
Student: “OK, I know that 4 makes the period – uh, longer? Shorter? Let’s see. Oh, yeah, I divide the period 2 pi by that 4, and the new period is pi over 2, and so I just scruntch it all into pi over 2 instead of 2 pi.” (Proceeds to sketch graph. No humming this time.)

Problem: Graph y+7/3 = 5/2 tan (3x + 7/4).
Student: “Mr. Math Teacher, sir? Please come over here so I can beat you up.”

See? Anger. Anger is a perfectly rational reaction to that. Admit it. You wouldn’t take that kind of abuse from anyone, let alone some old guy who talks through his nose and is half covered with chalk dust. So why do we expect kids to take it?

Sigh. Good thing nobody reads this blog, or I’d have a lot of angry math teachers to deal with.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Channeling Carnac the Magnificent

I take the hermetically sealed envelope out of the mayonnaise jar, and holding it to my ornately turbaned head, I say:

"A camel with one too many straws, a movie with two gay cowboys, and me."

Tearing open the envelope, I reveal the question:

"Name three things with a broke back."

Yeah, apparently I have a stress fracture in one of my vertebrae. Which would explain some of the back pain. Maybe not all, but some.

Why do I have a stress fracture? I don't know. Honestly, I have no idea how it happened. No recollection of anything that could have done it. I'd like to think that it came from my performing some superhuman feat of strength, like lifting a bus off of an orphan. But no. More likely it was because I have the bones of a 70-year-0ld woman. I was going to sell them on Ebay, but they wouldn't let me (rimshot).

So it looks like maybe there will be less Diet Coke, more weight-bearing exercise, and more calcium-rich foods in my future. It figures. My doctor visits have this nasty habit of returning to the theme of exercising more, eating better, and getting more sleep. Perhaps I'll try it this time.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Williams Way

I saw my cousin at the hardware store today. He lives about two hours away, and we see each other maybe once a year, at the family reunion. And of course, because we are roughly the same age and on good terms, we always exchange a few words -- maybe twelve. Let me count: "Hi, Tom, how you doin'?" "Fine. How are you guys doin'?" "Fine."

Yup, twelve.

Actually, our conversation at the hardware store was rather involved, by comparison, ranging over such topics as what project I was doing that brought me to the hardware store ("Oh, just fixing some stuff") and how Tom's parents, my aunt and uncle, were doing ("Real good."). I didn't ask him what brought him to the hardware store two hours from his home. If he wanted me to know, he'd have told me. But overall, it was really pretty chatty by our usual standards.

I think both of us are kind of relieved that we've pretty much taken care of our social obligations for the year. I figure this June, at the family reunion, we'll probably just nod at each other as we pass by. Don't want to overdo it. Besides, we both know how we'll be doin': Fine. We'll be doin' just fine.

And that's all a Williams really needs to know.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Erynn and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day(s)

Just over a week ago, Erynn had a very very good day. She has been taking ballroom dance as an after-school class this year, and has therefore been dancing with the Dixon Middle School ballroom dancers at various concerts this year. Last week, the two Dixon teams went to a competition involving several local middle schools. Long story short, Dixon walked away with two gold ribbons and the trophy for overall best dancers. Erynn was justifiably happy and proud. I was originally planning to write a blog complaining about how everything needs to be made into a competition in our society. But I figured since my daughter's team won, I'd let it slide.

HA! In your face, Other Local Middle Schools!

Anyway, she's had a good week. And then, yesterday, the Dixon team had one dance at a Provo High School dance concert. As I found out later, Erynn (as she says), "biffed it" as she was walking into the school just before the concert. Scraped and bruised both knees and both elbows. Must have been quite a biff. It included a face plant, so that her upper lip came between her braces and the sidewalk, resulting in blood and puffiness.

Trooper that she is, she bandaged up and got ready to dance. And dance she did. We didn't know any of this, sitting in the audience, videotaping our daughter's one performance, which as near as we could tell went well. However, if you examined closely the videotape, you would be able to find, as we did later, the exact moment when her dress fell off, and she was scooting to the back of the stage in her black undies, there in front of God and everybody.

As spectators, we honestly didn't notice it at the time. I'm not sure if anyone did, really. Except, of course, Erynn and her fellow sufferers up on stage. But it's there, on tape. It brought a smile to our faces last night as we watched it. In fact, it brought loud guffaws and snorts of laughter. Erynn wasn't convinced it was that funny.

She managed to get her dress fixed in the intervening 15 seconds or so, while the dancers were in two lines (her in the back, thankfully enough), doing hand jives. And the rest of the dance went off without any major wardrobe malfunctions.

As if that wasn't bad enough, the luck continued to today, which, of course, is Mother's Day. Erynn spent her last package of -- well, it's some kind of crafty plaster-like substance -- in making a pretty heart-shaped present for her Mom. And when she was working on it, she picked it up to move it and it broke. Likely beyond redemption.

Sad indeed. But the saddest thing is what she said to me last night, as we contemplated the dance debacle. She said, "Well, I guess it was just getting back at me for being so happy last week." If you're not quite sure what "it" was, then you probably haven't spent your life convinced that "it" was keeping score, and trying not to be too obviously happy or worry-free, because you knew beyond doubt that "it" would pay you back if you were. I have spent my life that way, so I recognized the symptoms immediately. It's part of my family heritage. I got it from my dad, who gotit from his mom, and on back, somewhere into Denmark, which gave us, after all, Hamlet, and goodness knows he knew better than to get too happy. I'm not sure, but I think "it" lives somewhere near Copenhagen.

Anyway, I have a few words of advice to give my daughter: You don't have to be another dismal Dane. First, you have every right to be happy when good things happen. Second, nobody is keeping score but you. Third, if you don't believe what I just told you, then start right now to fight that feeling. Fight it for all you're worth. It might be too late for me, but you can still save yourself.