On Critical Thinking, Algebra, and Math Anxiety

Today marks a first for me: I have two pieces running in two different sections of The New York Times on the same day!

Over at The Learning Network, the first of a week-long series of critical thinking questions is up for reader consideration. My editor at The Learning Network, Katherine Schulten, has asked readers to let her know whether or not they like my questions, and if enough people are excited about them, I get promoted to weekly feature status. So come on over, take the critical thinking quiz, and submit your feedback to Katherine.

At Motherlode, I weigh in on Andrew Hacker's opinion piece about the necessity of algebra in American education. My response is personal, rather than policy-based, and comes out of my recent return to Algebra I.

I am reposting the first of my posts about going back to math class below, and for my further adventures in Algebra I, read "Algebra I: Still Hazy After All These Years," "Exponents, Products, and [my mathematical] Powers" and "Exponent Negativity."

Quantifying the Unknown

I have a recurring dream: I am in college, or law school - sometimes high school - and I have not attended classes all semester. I don't know where my locker is, let alone the combination, and I'm not sure where the classrooms are. I certainly don't know what material we have covered. It's exam time, and I know I won't even be able to find the classroom so I can take the exam. I know that if I don't pass the exam, I will not be able to graduate, so I have to find the main office and I can ask them where my classes are. I wander around the school, often in that slow, stunted, underwater way, and get nowhere as the minutes of the exam period tick by.

One fun twist on last night's version of the dream is that while I was digging around in my materials, looking for any clue as to my class schedule, I found an application for an internship with Billy Collins. Despite that nice surprise, I still woke up nervous and flummoxed.

The class I fail in my dreams is usually math, which is absolutely predictable if you know me at all. I have never done well in math, and as a result, I have serious math anxiety. I can grade papers and calculate percentages, but anything more complex than that brings on the shakes. So when I woke up this morning at 4:32 A.M., drenched in sweat, I decided to return to the place of my defeat (again) and go back to school.

Fortunately, the math teacher at my school is amazing. She's the math teacher I wish I'd been lucky enough to have when I was in middle school. She's organized, demanding, witty, and kind, and every time I poke my head into her classroom, her students are enjoying themselves.

I know! That was a new concept for me, too.

I checked the middle school schedule and realized I have a prep period during her Algebra I classes on Wednesday and Friday, so starting next week, I'm back in school. I will have my own textbook, and I will even try to do some of the homework once I catch up to the kids (if that even happens).

It's time to put my money - well, my pride, I suppose - where my mouth is. I encourage my students to be brave, diligent, and never back down from an intellectual challenge. I try to model a love of education, a genuine thirst for knowledge that drives what I read, watch, and listen to. They know I am a frequent buyer at The Teaching Company, and that I listen to lectures on my iPod when I stack wood, fold laundry, and chop vegetables for dinner. Currently, I'm listening to a course on the evolution of the English language, and I love to share the tidbits I've gleaned with my students. They know I listen to courses on English, history, and science, but they also know about my math aversion. They joke about it. I joke about it. But it's not really that funny; it's actually quite sad.

I am hoping that my efforts to remedy my math anxiety will put weight behind my words. I hate math, yes. I hate the obsessive attention to plusses and minuses. I hate the inflexibility of numbers. But the excuse that "my brain just does not work that way" doesn't cut it when I simultaneously tell my students that they can do anything - anything - they want to do.

Well, dammit, so can I.