Tag Archiv: math

Math and me

picture compliments of morguefile.com

picture compliments of morguefile.com

I am teaching grade 4-6 math this year. When I was asked, I agonized and stalled, then worried that I’d made the wrong decision. I didn’t want it to take too much away from my already limited writing time.

Math and I have an odd relationship. As a kid, I was quick out of the gate to “get,” that thing called math. Learning math was a physical rush. Numbers felt comfortable and friendly in my head. Patterns peeked smiling from all kinds of places.

Life happened and I began to see and believe that “real” math people innately understood things I didn’t. There was an “it” they had that I lacked. I still loved patterns and numbers but our friendship was private.

Grade seven math was the first class I was ever given to teach. The head of the math department was a legendary calculus teacher. That year it was my nervous lot to teach his son. Several times the legend found me. Each time I expected to be discovered for my lack of realness. “You’re a born math teacher,” he would say.  I told him of the myriad English courses, but not a single university level math course to my credit. “You’re a born math teacher,” he replied unphased.

That summer I signed up for a university Calculus course hoping to convince myself that he was right about me being a born math teacher. The first class was only housekeeping, but I could feel the thrill of math in the air. I sat down that night eager to read the textbook, but none of it seemed real. Just little exercises for the sake of exercising. Was there even a point? For a pop quiz the next day someone began pouring blue water into a bottle. “Write the function of the blue water going into the bottle,” said the monotone grad student conducting the class.

This moment came with a great deal of clarity. I didn’t care even the tiniest bit what the function of the blue water was. I left and found a course whose functions interested me considerably more (a women’s studies course, if you’re curious).

Meanwhile, anytime I was asked to teach a math class I said yes. The irony was always that, as much as I love teaching English (and I really did love it), I was always a better math teacher. I privately debated the possible existence of a born math teacher with no knowledge of higher math. A 2003 book, “The Myth of Ability” by John Mighton, said it was more than possible, so I made it my bible and never looked back.

Math is about magic. Teaching math is about inspiring magicians. Unexpectedly  back at a chalkboard, I’m not sure how all the balancing will work. I’m 80% through my novel’s umpteenth rewrite. I have the blog and have other writing things on the go. But fifteen minutes into the first math class I knew that sometimes magic trumps time. People in love don’t worry about the time spent together that could have been used for other things. Teaching math is like that for me.

My concession to reality is to keep County Road 21 postings to twice a week. The number of typos and grammatical errors may trend upwards.The times I can’t manage a post may increase. But in the long run I believe that my writing and teaching math will make fine friends.

So here’s to the magic!

Hey, Mr. Riley


I have always liked math. In my younger days, I did well. In grade 11, I ended up in Calculus class with Mr. Riley.

Mr. Riley taught computers and senior math. He enjoyed talking about the stock market. On his head, he sported a carefully maintained comb over. He was in his fifties, I think. The problem was that my interest in math only went so far. I liked Algebra, Geometry and Trigonometry. I liked parts of Calculus, but some parts I did not. Discussions of imaginary numbers did not interest me even a little bit. I like imagination in my words, but not my numbers. What I like about numbers is how unimaginative they are.

My math teacher before Mr. Riley (not the top of the line for role models and appropriate conversationalists, but a decent math teacher) thought I was something great. My plans to become a social worker he dismissed as a ridiculous waste. Teachers talk. I think Mr. Riley saw me coming and thought I was someone I was not. At least that is my best guess at our troubles.

That and I was not that into school the year Calculus rolled around. My heart was heavy and my head was elsewhere. My lack of fascination for numbers real and imagined can’t really be blamed on Mr. Riley. A few weeks in and Mr. Riley was annoyed. A few months in and I was a source of great irritation. He seemed less than blessed by my, “yeah, so what’s the actual point,” approach to Calculus. One day in exasperation, Mr. Riley attempted a prophecy.

Jones, he said, so I looked up. You know what you’re going to be when you grow up? I was all over rhetorical questions, so I waited. I can just see it now. You’re going to be one of those women that live in a trailer park. That answers the door at 3:00 in the afternoon. Soap operas blaring in the background. Can of beer in your hand. Kids screaming in the background behind you.

I laughed. But part of me wasn’t laughing, it was staring through him thinking, wait and see, buddy. You don’t know a thing about me. Driving down the road the other day, I thought of Mr. Riley. Instead of a “Just you wait, Henry Higgins,” moment, an entirely new conversation occurred to me. As a result, I’m organizing an all points bulletin to all the nursing homes in America until I find him. I’ve got some questions that need answers, like where?

Where, Mr. Riley? Where is that trailer park?  If the soaps fail to suit, might I read instead? Iced tea perhaps for my hand. Does the bathrobe come with the trailer, and if so, in what colors is it available?  I’m finally getting the vision and the sooner I get there the better.

More on naked revelation


A Young Scholar, painted by Jean-Honore Fragonard. 1778.

I like to remember brave deeds. Grade six friends who forgot their bus notes could count on me to pen their permissions and sign their parent’s names. When the burly book keepers from a Jello Wrestling fundraiser tried to fudge the numbers, my 17 year old self was more than happy to take them to task while our math intimidated adult supervisor fretted. I am comfortable questioning immigration officials, security personnel, and government employees.

I don’t remember many instances where people described me as fearful. I remember more the feeling of being jostled forward with, “send Michelle, she’s not afraid,” in my ears. The day I grabbed my brother and kept him firmly between me and the growling dog, no one was there to see.  But No-Criticism-Lent (Reduced-Criticism Lent might be more accurate) isn’t lying. I am afraid.

I went into Lent thinking I needed it because I walked around with inappropriate levels of grumpiness about other people’s foibles. Considering fear in the equation is like realizing I’ve been navigating the kitchen with a paper bag on my head. My eyes are adjusting to the super bright. I’m still taking in the increased definition in shapes and the nuances of color.

It is amazing to me how the patterns we develop as children shape our adult responses. Sometimes when I think I am keeping my own children safe, I am really assuring the child I once was that she is safe. The insight doesn’t give me a pass on criticizing, it gives me the chance to do something about the fear that’s behind it.

Which is scary.

“Naked revelation,” I wrote yesterday, “I criticize because I am afraid. . . If no one messes up, everything will be ok, nothing will fall apart, and no one will get hurt.”  The statement implies that my criticism does not actually save me from what I am afraid of.  In other words, I realized that fear drives me, and then I realized my go-to coping mechanism is useless. My footing would be more sure on the melting ice floating around on our pond right now. I guess the best thing about having grey hair, is that you can feel all that slipping and wait it out. Wet boots, cold feet, soggy pants maybe, but you make it to something solid and go on in to get warm.

I’m afraid of things falling apart. I don’t have the power to make myself and everybody else do it right (so that bad things never happen). But it’s ok. The fear of the child who was me can be gently diffused. The future is uncertain and uncontrollable. Instead of tearing down the metaphorical neighbors who walk on my yard, I can lean into loving them. It will be a work in progress, but if the world starts crumbling on account of it, maybe we can face it together.

Gym class

file7261249326359Being in a gym lately has me thinking about gym class.

Gym class is the only place I can remember feeling so ashamed. I stretched myself mightily once and went to a friend’s house to work an aerobics routine for a song from the radio. My friend got sick and my grade six self had to perform the routine alone. Horrific was the agony.

Gym class was also one of the few places so many things were new.  A track to run, hurdles to leap, and a rope to the ceiling to climb hand over hand. Trampolines, parallel bars, balance beams.

I looked forward to gym class and I raised a little bit of trouble. Most of the school day, my sense of humour was restrained. At home, I carried a lot of responsibility and caused no trouble beyond the occasional smart comment. But I knew of no expectations specific to the preacher’s daughter regarding gym class. There (and anywhere there was a substitute teacher) I let loose another side. It was, I discovered, extremely relaxing to be bad.

Twenty laps, the teacher would say. I got to the gym first, so as to begin modifications.

Time for some math, I would yell out as we ran. 2 x 2 is 4, plus 6 is 10. We’re half way there everybody.

Nobody ever argued. Sit-ups and push ups liked math too.

Mandatory group showers insulted my sense of decency and public decorum.

Wrap your towel around you, splash water on your shoulders, and go to the bathroom, I told my friends. Come out again when people are leaving the showers. Works every time.

I can’t comment on the blessings incurred by my gym/substitute teachers, but being bad was good for what ailed me. A needed respite from the seriousness of life. Getting caught and extra running didn’t bother me, it made me laugh more.

At a dinner with our school choir once, three teachers got into a discussion about me. Two insisted that I was an angel. A frequent substitute teacher named Mrs. Sims weighed in more to the devil side of things.

“You must be thinking of someone else,” my defenders insisted. “She’s wonderful.”

Mrs. Sims snorted. “Call her over and ask her yourself.”

Although we never said it, Mrs. Sims and I liked each other. She was gruff, smart and not remotely intimidated by me. I enjoyed a good laugh and was staunchly opposed to completing anything smelling of busy work assigned by absent teachers. This put us on opposite sides of the law. It wasn’t personal.

“She’s not exaggerating,” I told the other two teachers.

“But you’re so good,” they said still struggling to believe.

“Sometimes I’m not,” I said.

“Told ya,” said Mrs. Sims.


I’m not sure where I’m going with this. Maybe just to say that I’m teaching some gym classes these days and the kids make me smile. Gyms are good places to not be perfect, to go a little crazy and to run it out of your system.

Making progress

Admiring the ship

Admiring the ship

At our house, we specialize in “S,” for Satisfactory on report cards and “progress” reports. (We don’t tend to progress in these things.) Organization: S. Responsibility for personal belongings: S. Initiative (this is for asking questions about your homework when it’s recess time): S or N (Needs improvement). Etc. etc. etc. I want to tear up the paper. Go up to the roof and let tiny pieces cascade down in onto the lawn, preferably in the rain.

At home, I find the kids bursting over with a life and possibility not even remotely reflected in their report cards. I was a teacher once. I get that some parents want to ignore the failings of their children. This isn’t that. It’s a philosophical position about what report cards have to offer. Report cards say a little about language and math literacy and a lot about whether or not a child fits in the picture of a model elementary school student.


I found the following in the front of boy two’s notebook. It  was an assignment from the beginning of the year. With boy two’s permission . . . his assignment:

Why I am Unique

Being outside is very important

I love to be outside

I love to read and read and read

Stuff I like to eat is homemade yogurt, muffins, eggs, melon

I own a chicken named Tailless

I like to fiddle and make stuff

I like to draw and make comics

I love to collect bugs, frogs, salamanders, snakes

I like to ride my bike

I make stuff with Lego

I like to climb

I like to be gross

I like to be with Misty the pony

I like to play with my sisters

I like to sing

I am flexible

I have a good spatial sense my mom says, so I am planning on being an architect

I am short and proud of it!

My ancestor was Sir Francis Drake. He was the second person ever to sail around the world.

The End

I have a friend who swears by the theory that we shouldn’t spend our emphasis trying to fix the weaknesses we see in kids. Instead, we should figure out how to support their greatnesses. (He read this somewhere but I don’t remember where. I’m sourcing, “Conversations with Barclay.”)

I care a lot about the joys to be found in math and language literacy. But even above that, I’m going with creativity, a willingness to try new things, and deep respect for the gifts and proclivities every child finds growing inside themselves. This is what kids need nurtured.

I thanked the teachers for the progress reports. This is what my heart said.

Dear Teachers,

Apologies for the barely satisfactory social development. Boy two is related to Sir Francis Drake and cannot keep his desk tidy, as he is getting ready to sail around the world.

Sincere thanks for your efforts,

The people financing the voyage