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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Careful March Down a Well-Cleared Highway

Mathematics is not a careful march down a well-cleared highway, but a journey into a strange wilderness, where the explorers often get lost.  - W.S. Anglin

In 1974 I was a 12 year old “know-it-all” in Mr. Bott’s 7th grade math class at Oakside Junior High. I was in tough competition with Jack Taniguchi for the coveted first place seat up front and to the left of the blackboard. It was like some form of musical chairs: at times he would win out on the weekly math test and take the prize desk, with me to his right. Other weeks I would manage the better test score, claiming dominion over that desk. I don’t remember anyone else in the running.

Mr. Bott was an old battleship of a teacher who doubled as a fear inspiring basketball coach. He had military crew cut hair, a paunch belly and a stubborn line of spittle at the left corner of his mouth. We would watch, fascinated yet disgusted, as he would lift his right hand up near his mouth, chalk in hand, and accidentally mix chalk dust with spit to create a white, bouncy string stretching and contracting to the rhythm of his math lectures.

Mr. Bott’s classroom was a study in geometric perfection. Neat, straight rows of desks, five rows, each with seven desks, clearly organized to show his unfailing sense of hierarchy. His classroom management style was dictatorial favoritism. The “best students” sat up in the front rows, the worst, in the back. It probably suited many of us just fine. The “good” students wanted his attention as we raised our hands with eagerness. The “bad” students were likely just as content to be left alone and forgotten.

When I was a Middle School math teacher, I often found myself dredging up old memories of my experiences as a student. I held Mr. Bott up as a clear example in my mind of who I would never become: cold, distant and judgmental.

But as I think back on him and other teachers I’ve had, I also realize that I actually knew precious little of what motivated them, what their private lives might have been like, and whether they actually found joy in their professions. As an adolescent boy, I likely didn’t want to know more than how to get the best possible grade.

Mr. Bott may have been a passionate educator in his hey day, might have still felt that passion within, might have even felt he was marching us down a well cleared highway towards academic success. I implicitly trusted his military vision of math instruction and fell into the mesmerizing marching beat without question.  But even if he thought otherwise, Mr. Bott was not the source of inspiration. Rather, he was the obstacle of be overcome. Some of us made it, but many others did not.

I now see math as a wonderfully complex, old growth jungle of entangled ideas and spidery patterns. I believe in the capacity of each of my students to find their own sense of beauty in this jungle. Yet, even as I look for ways to introduce my students to it, I see flickering images of my pre-teen years in their looks. Some implicitly trust me, others coil back in fear, and still others march on, seemingly indifferent to me and the foliage that surrounds us. It is times like that I wonder just what Mr. Bott would say about the mess I am in.


Stephen said...

My folks just sent me my K-8 report cards. Fascinating. According to my teachers, i was capable and underachieving. What made them think that? I did what i was told, no more or less. My grades were more or less average, except that math and science were always above average. I've no idea where i learned any science in K-7 anyway. Fascinating. I scored slightly above average in a 2nd grade national test (which i do not recall). But the report stated that some 90% of students at the school scored above the national average. Apparently, i lived in Lake Woebegone, or nearby. My Mom claims i was a perfect child. My report cards say pretty much the same. But i met my elementary school principal when i was older, and he evidently knew better. At least he was puzzled by it.

If i was a teacher, i'd try to get the worst performing students up front, though using some really less than obvious tactic. They're the ones that need the most help. I'd try not to lecture, but try to get the whole class engaged, possibly with a "please interrupt" policy. And then, instead of answering questions, try to get the class to discuss problems.

I never valued grades myself, and never did anything special to achieve good grades. But after average grades in K-7, in 8th grade, they went to A's and B's. It's striking. I remember nothing special in 8th grade. Was it "advanced 8th grade algebra" that finally made me work? Was it my neighbor, the English teacher, who took special interest in forcing grammar down my throat? Or maybe it was that one day i noticed that i couldn't see anything on the board in class, and walked to the front row. I went home and told Mom that i needed glasses. Maybe i couldn't ever see, and just noticed.

ERKO said...

I find your story interesting. In my college classes, I ask my students to think of a math story to tell us from their lives. A Mathography. Your's reflect this. Thanks for sharing.