Exponent Negativity

An 8th grade student approached me yesterday after third period. I had just taught composition class - the composition class that conflicts with the Algebra I class I have been attending in order to get over my math anxiety.

"Mrs. Lahey, I we did some hard stuff in math today, and we were really worried that you'd get behind, so I agreed to take notes for you and teach you the lesson. I can come by during lunch today and explain what we learned, if you want."

This reversal just slays me. My students are worried for me. Worried about my ability to keep up in math class. How sweet is that? I was really touched. One of the things I love most about my school is the sense of community, but until yesterday, this community had always been a "them" and "us" community. We adore our students, mind you, but as much as we'd like for our community to be one, big, fuzzy "us," it's not. Students are students and teachers are teachers, and never the twain shall meet.

Until yesterday.

Before I start getting attacks from readers who think I am trying to create inappropriate relationships with my students - relationships I am supposed to view as rigidly hierarchical and hopelessly lopsided as a power structure - know that I am not trying to be my students' friend. I just think it's good for them to see adults not know things, and not be afraid to not know, and not run from not knowing.

I talk and talk about the importance of viewing education as a lifelong process rather than a means to some calligraphy-on-parchment end, and my attempt to work through my math anxiety is proof of statement. I really mean it. I love to learn - and not just the stuff that comes more easily. Even the stuff that makes me want to give up and run screaming in the other direction.

Stuff like this:

As I am a newly minted Algebra I student, let me break this explanation down for you.

[Silence, eventually the sound of fingers tapping idly on the keyboard, as I attempt to think of words appropriate to the material contained in the scanned image, above.]

Okay. Here's what I know. I must accept the fact that any number to the power of zero = 1. Ellie, my English-student-cum-Algebra-mentor explains that concept in her red notes above. I don't understand it, but I accept that it's a rule, and follow it.

The other thing I learned is this: if an integer is negative, you can stick it at the bottom of a fraction under a one, and it magically becomes positive. I don't know why, but if I simply accept this and apply it, my homework answers are right. I got through a difficult problem set today through the blind application of these two rules.

I'm not proud of this reality; I'm just owning it. I just don't get it. Alison Gorman, my colleague, friend, and math teacher is patient and kind and generous with her time, and I feel as if I get it for a second or two after she explains it to me, but then, poof, it's gone.

This has always been my problem with math. I try to understand the whys and wherefores of the rules, I really do, but the why just goes over my head. I don't know if it's because I don't care, or because I know that in the end, if I just decide to accept the rule and use it, I can get by through sheer grit and application of the rules I don't really understand. That's how I got through high school math.

Alison is one of the most effective, organized, creative, and dedicated teacher I have ever met, and yet, I think she may have met her match in me. She's extremely patient, and more than a little entertained by my efforts, but I'm afraid she's going to realize that I have severe limitations where numbers are concerned.

I will continue to try to understand, because I hate that I don't. I hate not knowing. I hate butting up against my limitations.

It's time to bust through the negative and transform those integers into their positive form once and for all.

Monday: Powers of 10 and Scientific Notation.

Part V of my math odyssey can be found here.