Lesson ideas, Teaching ideas

Confessions of a closet Math person

For most of my life, I haven’t thought of myself as a math person – in high school, math was my most difficult subject. I struggled through Algebra 12 and finished with a C+, which was a huge accomplishment for me. My teacher took a dim view of my academic potential, and told me that I should consider getting married and having children or becoming a hairdresser, and that I didn’t have what it took to make it through university.

Viewing my teacher as an authority figure, I believed what I had been told, but I desperately wanted it to not be true. I had wanted to be a teacher all my life to that point, and I really didn’t see another career path that I could embrace with the same enthusiasm and passion. The other unfortunate side effect is that it strengthened my dislike of and fear of math.

Fast forward a year, and I had a year of work experience in the restaurant industry under my belt, and a solid knowledge that I wanted to try my hand at this university thing, and try to make it as far as a Bachelors degree and a teaching certificate. I registered for my first year, but, hedging my bets, I registered at a community college in the university transfer program. Going about it that way allowed me to save the money I would have had to spend on more expensive university tuition, and to take the same courses with essentially the same instructors, and at the end of two years if all went well, I could transfer my credits to the university of my choice and finish my degree there.

Terrified but willing to try, I jumped in and started my courses. Because of my program choice, I had to take two math courses. The first day I walked into the math classroom, I expected to have the same challenges and difficulties facing me as had been the case in high school. This time around, things were different. My instructor was a woman, and a very skilled teacher. I was a year older, and more determined to make a success of it. I finished that semester with a B – the best mark I had received in a math course in a very long time. Relieved and encouraged, I started the second math course. This time I finished with an A.

I still don’t love math in the traditional sense, and I have to work hard at it, but I know now that I can do it. I’ve overcome that little voice in the back of my mind that argued that maybe my high school math teacher was right. I have successfully graduated from university, and have been a teacher for nearly 20 years. In that time, I’ve noticed a correlation between students who are good at math, and those who are good at languages.

To try to tap into that and support those who may struggle with complex explanations, I have developed my own way of explaining complex grammar structures by boiling them down to very simple math-type equations. I don’t give my students long wordy explanations of grammar structures, because I’d rather they focus on using them to communicate.

I always follow the same basic structure for every explanation, no matter the grade level. I start with a purpose – every grammar structure in a language can be viewed as a tool with a specific purpose. It has things it can do, and things it can’t do.

The next thing I include is a formula (example below). I present it as a blueprint, and as long as students can see how a sample sentence fits the formula, understand what the components of the formula are, and use it in their sentences, they can have success with it.

The formula sometimes needs explanation, and I try to keep the explanation as clear and straightforward as possible. I number the parts of it, go through it in order, and ask students to give me examples of each one so that they can come up with some suggestions for how to use a given structure immediately.

In some instances (depending on the concept being taught) I also include notes and exceptions, trying to keep them as concise as possible. We finish with some examples, and then it’s over to the students to use the structure for themselves.

Here’s an example of what the notes look like:


I normally write the notes on the board and ask students to copy them into their notebooks, and with the advent of greater technology use in my classroom, this is one aspect of my practice that I have decided not to change at this time. Students do ask me from time to time if they can just take a picture of the notes, but I have asked them to write the information out rather than simply take a photo of it. I have found that it’s in the action of writing things out that questions occur to students, and they have the opportunity to ask for clarification before they jump in and start to use a given structure. Photos definitely have a time and purpose in my classroom, but in my experience it’s less likely that students will look at the information with the same depth and questioning if all they do is take a photo.

Many of my students also find math difficult, but they do seem to like the use of a math-like format to express complex ideas. I have gained the understanding of finding something extremely difficult and eventually overcoming it, and I share my story with my students. It’s my hope that whatever their difficulty is, they will learn to overcome it as well.

What parts of your learning story do you share?
How do you take something complex and make it simple?

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