A whimsical look at life growing up in the small town of Waldron, Arkansas in the 1960s and 1970s, plus occasional observations from the present. Want to start at the very beginning? Click HERE.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Adventures in Mathematics

It's ironic, actually, that I spent 16 years teaching math to sixth graders.  Math was not my favorite subject in school.  In fact, I made only one "D" in my entire life, and that was on my semester test in seventh grade math.  I still have the report card with that ignominious mark; a reminder of what can happen if you don't take care of business.  But that "D" did have a positive outcome; it stirred me to see that I never got another one.  So, thanks Coach Coble; it wasn't your fault; that one was on me.

The next year, I had Sherri Pugh for math, and I managed to improve my work ethic.  I found that, by doing my homework and actually asking a question when I didn't understand something, I was able to keep my head above water.  It also helped having a twin sister in the same class; we could do our homework together and if one of us had trouble with something, the other one could often help out.  In ninth grade, I had Algebra I with Mrs. Inez Neal.  Here is a blog entry about that year

In tenth grade, it was time for Algebra II with Mr. Wallace Hill.  Tough and demanding, Mr. Hill was truly one of the best teachers I ever had, including my college instructors.  I flat learned some math from Wallace Hill. 

Fortunately, I recognized early on that Mr. Hill's class meant work.  He wasn't interested in excuses as to why your homework wasn't done, and he expected you to arrive in class ready to learn.  He liked structure, and so did I, so we got along fine.  When papers were turned in, he wanted them folded lengthwise, with your name and period written on the front of the fold.  When I taught math a few years later, I had my students turn in their papers the same way.  You could slip a rubber band around each class' papers and easily keep them organized.  Mr. Hill also had a standard number of points available each six weeks; I think it was 630.  No matter what various assignments would be made each grading period, they would ultimately total 630 points at the end of the six weeks. 

Algebra II gave way to geometry in eleventh grade.  What I remember about geometry was the proofs.  Proofs were a great exercise in logical thinking.  Each step lead to another, until, if the gods were favorable, you arrived at a final statement of "proof."  There were no slouches in geometry; you had to bring your A game to make it through that class. 

By senior year, most of us had completed our required number of math credits, so it was considered foolhardy by many to take the remaining math class, known simply as Advanced Math.  Advanced Math was pretty much a combinatin of calculus and trig; lots of word problems and higher-level thinking.  It required that we purchase and learn to use a cutting edge computational device known as a slide rule.  It was clearly not for the faint of heart.  But, there were about 18 or so of us who took the plunge.  It was a difficult decision, because we all knew what was coming second semester:  Special Problems. 

As eleventh graders, we had seen the Seniors of '73 after they were issued their Special Problems.  The fear in their eyes, the ashen pallor of their skin; all sure indicators of distress.  Indeed, Special Problems were cause for worry.  Special Problems were actually used test booklets from some kind of mathematics exam administered somewhere each year; perhaps by the CIA as a means of breaking down the resistance of the most ardent political prisoner.  But each year, a new booklet from the previous year's administration of the exam became available, and that booklet was issued to the Advanced Math student with the best grade.  Everyone else got a special problems booklet that at least one Advanced Math student had had before, so you could take comfort in knowing that at least one person had successfully worked most of the problems.  But the BEST Advanced Math student was in it all alone.  They themselves would be the first WHS person to work those problems.

At Christmas break, about half the class came to their senses and dropped the class, willing to take the half credit.  But the rest of us soldiered on, knowing what awaited us.  Sure enough, shortly after we came back from Christmas, Mr. Hill issued our Special Problems.

I don't remember who got the new Problems that year; either Emmett Barnett, Deborah Darosset, or Janice Cottingham.  My Special Problems booklet showed much wear, evidence that it had been used several years, which proved to be a source of comfort to me.  Everyone's Special Problems booklet was different.  We had pretty much the rest of the year to complete as many of the thirty or so problems in the booklet as we could. 

So, during study hall or at lunch, we could often be found grouped together, trying to figure out how to do the incredibly difficult word problems found in the booklets.  For some reason, we could often figure out how to do problems in other people's booklets easier than we could our own.  I guess it was because we had looked at our own so much that we developed a mental block about them.  I remember how good Richard Parks was at solving other people's Special Problems.  I know he solved one or two of mine, and several for others as well.  I couldn't return the favor; I wasn't able to help Richard with a single one of his. 

As the semester wore on, I recognized that I would not be able to solve all of my Special Problems, so I began to calculate how many I would need to solve in order to make a decent grade.  And that's exactly how many I solved.  I think I got about half of them.  The Special Problems were not all of our grade, but they were a significant part.  I was so relieved to turn my booklet back in!

I will say that Mr. Hill prepared me well for college.  When I took College Algebra, I didn't see anything that I hadn't already done in Mr. Hill's class.  As a result, I sailed through what is normally one of the most difficult of all college classes.  I began to see what an impact Mr. Hill had made in my life.  That explained why about the only thing that could make Mr. Hill stop teaching was when one of his former students showed up at his classroom door.  He always took a few minutes to talk to them, and I can see why they would want to come back and see him.

Of course, the math I taught in sixth grade was nowhere near the level that Mr. Hill taught.  But I tried to have the same high expectation for my students.  And when I now see students struggling with college-level algebra classes, I am reminded of how fortunate I was to have Mr. Hill in high school.

One little aside:  around Christmas time, Deborah Darosset came to school with an electronic calculator.  We gathered around, amazed at the curious device.  She had paid over $100 for the thing, but incredibly it could perform all four basic mathematical computations:  add, subtract, multiply, and divide.  Obviously inferior to our slide rules, still it was an interesting curiosity.  Nowadays, a similar calculator would run you about one dollar at most stores.

And, in closing, let me recommend an incredible website for students of any level who are having difficulty with math.  The site is called khanacademy.org.  This website contains literally hundreds and hundreds of short tutorials about everything from basic math up through calculus, as well as a huge number of tutorials about other subjects.  It's free, it's not a gimmick, and I highly recommend it.

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