Sunday, September 4, 2011

Math Class is Tough!

I remember the commotion started by Teen Talk Barbie when she announced, “Math class is tough!” in the early nineties.  After only a few months, the phrase was taken out of the dolls’ vocabularies and Mattel swapped out the dolls that still said the phrase.  These toys echoed a much larger cultural trend that continues to plague math teachers across the country: being smart and doing well in math doesn’t always make you popular.  Social conditioning can lead students, especially those in their very impressionable adolescent years, to believe that math is very hard and “uncool,” and generally not worth their time and effort.  It’s often seen as a required subject to pass, not a subject that will be interesting, fun, and ultimately very useful in life.  Making math accessible and intriguing and even cool to these students is an obstacle that successful math teachers overcome.  Math class can be tough, but students who enjoy it from a young age will enjoy it enough to make it worth the effort.

Great middle school and high school math teachers find ways to connect with their students to help them embrace and enjoy math, blending mathematical concepts into all different subjects. Integrating subjects like this can seem like a lofty goal for those of us who are constantly short on time, but there are plenty of Gateway resources to help you out.  If you start a search for math resources, you can narrow your search with a secondary subject (such as art). When I did this search, I found a neat lesson about M.C. Escher artwork and the mathematical concept of tessellations.

You can intrigue your students by presenting real-world projects and activities that demonstrate the relevance of math in students’ lives.  Tessellations and fractals are both math concepts can be taught with fun hands-on activities at many grade levels.  Many adolescent students will balk at a discussion of interior and exterior angles, and how different geometric shapes can fit together.  These same students might truly enjoy exploring the concept with manipulatives or interactive computer models.  From simple pattern-building activities in the primary grades to some of the more complex activities available on the Gateway, using hands-on activities and visual aids is appealing and memorable to many students.

My favorite math and science teachers showed me how to embrace my inner “nerd,” helping me succeed in math despite the social pressure (and Barbie) telling me that math class is tough. In my calculus class, the community was so tight-knit that we created a class shirt that was actually cool to wear it around campus.  In that classroom, I learned an important lesson: being a dork or geek is not a bad thing!  In her book Math Doesn’t Suck, Danica McKellar takes an opposite approach by showing teen girls that math is actually cooler than they think, and not just a subject for the smart boys. The Wonder Years actress turned math guru’s books are a good resource to suggest to girls struggling (or not trying) in your class. 

As a math teacher, you are a very important role model for your students. Your love for math will show, and if you get excited about math in your everyday life, your students will notice.  If you have fun and embrace your own inner “geek,” maybe they will, too. Kids who learn to love math today will excel in it tomorrow. Good luck, and please let us know if you have successful math activities you want to share.

~Peggy's Corner - 9/1/2011~

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