Saturday, September 19, 2009

My Constant State of Disequilibrium

I attended a workshop on literacy the other day. The presenter was giving us new strategies to use in the classroom, techniques we had never tried. She warned us: we may feel a little "disequilibrium" when first trying out these new ideas.

I sighed. Not only have I already been living in the state of disequilibrium, I live in the capital of it. I'm the mayor of its largest city. My full name is Dis Equil Ibrium.

First, my personal life has been out of balance recently due to health issues in my family. But that aside, my professional life has been out of whack, too. I returned to school after my year as "Teacher Ambassador" for the state of North Carolina to two jobs, not one. And what was proposed as half time Literacy Coach and half time District Mentor has actually turned into two full time jobs. I told my boss I'm not woman enough to do two jobs as effectively as they should be done. So I constantly struggle with time management issues, conflicting meetings, and craziness in my professional life as well.

But although those duties are tipping the balance of my life from one side to the other at a moment's notice, there is one even bigger reason my life is dis-equal: this English major, published author, poetry loving, reading teaching math.

I just heard the collective gasp from here.

It's not that I don't like numbers. I just like words better. I did like playing with the abacus when I was in first grade, but I don't remember relating that to math. Instead it was a game - pushing pretty little beads around. Years later, I would struggle in geometry, algebra, and trigonometry. I didn't even attempt calculus.

I've spent my adult life figuring out ways to balance a bank statement, estimate totals when grocery shopping, and place furniture in angled corners. And though I can hold my own with those tasks, I wouldn't say I have a relationship with the subject matter.

Which brings us to the present. A few months ago my principal called me in to tell me that he had some ideas about my role as Literacy Coach at my school. He said, "The language arts teachers should know how to integrate reading and writing into their instruction. I need you to work in the math classes." I didn't tell him about the 3 I made on an Algebra II test in 11th grade. A 3. Out of 100.

But since then I have embraced the challenge and have learned a great deal about factoring and least common multiples and patterns and mean, median, and mode while trying to find an opening to talk about vocabulary connections and ways to make math relative out in the world. And the interesting thing is that I see little middle school versions of me sitting in some of those desks struggling with math.

Here's an example - a word problem the teacher assigned went something like this: a girl has agreed to babysit every third day. But she has to go to dance class every seventh day. How many days in a month will she have a conflict? Now...solving this problem, according to the teacher's example, involved finding common multiples. I can't even explain it in words.

But I looked at one student, Jacob, and found a kindred spirit. He grabbed his ruler, drew a huge calendar, numbered the days and began counting. Exactly what I would have done - skipping the math computation altogether. A child after my own heart.

Albert Einstein said, "Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas." Well, everyone knows I love poetry. So maybe this math thing will work out okay. It has to get easier. I'd like to move out of Disequilibrium.


David L Macaulay said...

I'm sorry but I don't see how English and math can logically tie in - seems artificial. But then I've just started out as a high school English teacher and one subject is sufficient for me.

Scott Laidlaw said...


When you mention your lack of relationship to math at an early age, it strikes a cord. We've been working on teaching math through a story-based approach. I'd love for you to check out what we are doing- and and let us know what you think.