Monday, April 12, 2010

The Math Test

The Test

I took a test today.

Math and Physics. Basic math and basic physics. Actually, just the math portion was on the test. Next month will be the physics test.

Only a few of you will shrug your shoulders and look at me quizically, not really understanding the big deal.

Most of you will easily sympathize with know exactly what a big deal that was.

The most recent math test I've taken was about three years ago. The hiring process for my job required a basic chemistry test, which involved basic math. I passed, after a month of diligent home study.

Before that, the last math test I took was probably during college, in the late 1970's. Basic math. Math for teachers. Math for teachers of first-graders.

In high school I was part of the moderately popular group. I found most of my academic success in the literary arts. I was a mediocre, trumpet-playing band member. I was president of our student body assembly for one year and I lettered in tennis.

But I stunk at math.

I think my first, and only, sense of accomplishment as a mathemetician came during my second year of school. I was seven years old, I think. We were taking the yearly achievement tests and I breezed through the geometry section. I really knew my squares and triangles!

Ten long years later, I still was looking for that sense of accomplishment.

My eighth grade teacher recommended that for my first year of high school, I take the General Math class, rather than Algebra I. Anguish filled my soul as I imagined the shame I would endure as my friends advanced to real math classes: Algebra II, Pre-Calculus, Physics, Trigonometry...while I struggled through Math for Dummies.

When I did qualify for algebra, I found myself placed in the class taught by our school's athletic director...the toughest, most intimidating man I had ever known and feared...the football coach. The lessons flew past my timid eyes like a vapor. The homework seemed to be an obscure secret language. I understood little, and what little I thought I understood turned out to be riddled with confusing, hard-to-remember shortcuts and rules.

That was the last math class I took for about six years.

In college I vacillated for three years, switching my major three times, from journalism to biology to art. Near the end of my junior year, seeing my options running out, I switched one last time, pinning my future career aspirations onto Elementary Education.

It was like release from prison.

I found the education classes intellectually challenging and socially relevant. I adored the attention and affection of the children in the classroom. I excelled in lesson planning, classroom management, public speaking, and I reveled in the latest technology (mimeograph machines, IBM Selectrics, overhead projectors, and wonders of wonders...the OPAQUE PROJECTOR!

One snag, however...the college required teachers to know how to teach math.

My college level, education-focused math class was team-taught by two honest-to-goodness classroom teachers who believed that no math dummies should be left behind. They had written their own textbook, filled with games, diagrams, puzzles and challenges that started at the very beginning of math and helped me dance right through to algebra and trigonometry. They were math-teacher geniuses with down-to-earth attitudes and patient reliance upon knowing the why of everything we did. No more memorizing rules. No more blindly following magical shortcuts. We could do no operation of which we did not know the concrete, rock-solic mathematical reason for doing. It changed my life, mathematically.

Note: My deteriorating memory prevents me from recalling the names of these two teachers who radically changed my understanding of math. I've got a call out on Facebook to all the old-timers at the college. If I can get help recalling their names before this post publishes, I'll edit this and give them the credit that is due them. Otherwise, wherever these two men are, I wish them well and I am tremendously appreciative of their educational integrity and help!

Update: a good friend from my college days has helped me remember the name of one of these fine instructors: Dr. Dewight Lippe. Thank you, Dr. Lippe, from the depth of my math-enriched heart!

I left college feeling like I understood at least the basics of math, and sure that I could teach children to understand, appreciate, and even enjoy math. And I did.

It's now about thirty years later. I hope to qualify for a job at the Hanford Waste Treatment Plant, which requires me to demonstrate adequate skills in Basic Math and Physics. The class I'm taking accomodates my rotating, 12-hour, night/day/graveyard/swingshift work schedule, so it has been condensed into 52 hours, spread over eight days: four days this month, and four days next month. The pace is ridiculously rapid, with a quiz every day and two comprehensive exams. If I pass, my employer will reimburse the $600 tuition fee. I want to pass.

But, more than simply passing the class, I want to excel. I want to so thoroughly understand the math and science in this class that I could teach it myself. My belief is that math is more than just shortcuts and rules. I believe math can relate directly to the physical life around us...that every rule has a solid basis in something we can grab or see, or at least imagine. Just passing this class, just learning enough to get through the test, means defaulting on my commitment to the reality, and importance, of education in general, and of math in particular.

But it's hard. This class is not designed to enlighten or educate. It is designed simply to help the Hanford Waste Treatment Plant get an adequately skilled workforce in order to process nuclear waste. The class emphasizes shortcuts and rules. It demands memorization rather than understanding. There is little time for discussion or debate, or even questions, much less doubt or confusion.

It almost makes me nostalgic for my old football coach.