My earliest memories of math were of my brothers, mother, and me crowded around a 5 gallon water jug full of coins that we had collected to fund our trip to Disneyland. All our spare change for years was dropped in this clear container and we watched and remarked with excitement as the volume continued to grow. We asked questions like:
- How much do we have?
- How much more do we need?
- Will a full container be enough?
The day finally came, we decided, to determine the answers to our questions. The bottle was nearly full and it was time to begin the sorting, counting, and coin rolling process. More questions:
- How many quarters in a roll?
- Why are there more pennies in a roll than nickles if the nickels are worth more?
- What do I do with the remaining change that doesn’t fit in a roll?
The four of us sat around the shag green carpet of my childhood home and engaged in what would today be called a counting collection. (More on that topic here) With great anticipation, we watched the piles of coin rolls stack higher and higher. At the time, I was only 4 years old (the baby of my family). I was certain that by the looks of these piles, we were millionaires! Alas, I was reassured at the end of our count that, while we had not quite reached the millionaire mark, we had saved enough money to book our trip.
It wasn’t clear to me then that this experience was a mathematical one, but in hindsight I can see that it most certainly was the real world math experience that we strive to give our students day in and day out. And all of this orchestrated by my mom, who to this day will tell you she is “not a math person”. I beg to differ…
The year following, I started school and progressed through each successive year with success. Nothing spectacular or memorable. It wasn’t until the 3rd grade that I began to wonder if I, too, was “not a math person”. This was the year of memorizing multiplication facts. It all began harmlessly enough.
- Times 0 – √ (Rule: Anything times zero is zero.)
- Times 1 – √ (Rule: Anything times one is itself.)
- Times 2 – √ (I had been skip counting these since 1st grade. I was a 2’s skip counting ninja by this point. I don’t think my teacher even noticed my fingers discretely marking my skip count under my desk.)
- Times 3 – Hmmmm…no rule, no trick? I just have to remember these?
- Times 4 – Same as times 3. What is going on here? Why can’t I remember these?
- Times 5 – Oh thank goodness! I can skip count these too!
- Times 6 through 9 – These flash cards aren’t working! I don’t know what 8 x 7 is!
- Times 10 – Who cares? I’m not good at this anyway.
Needless to say, 3rd grade left me with a bad mathematical taste in my mouth. My mom isn’t good at math, so it’s okay that I am not good at math too, right?
Upon entering 6th grade, Mr. Kuhl changed my perspective on my ability in math class. He saw me as a student who was capable and put me in situations in which he demonstrated his trust in my ability to use problem solving and reason to make sense of the math problems he was posing. This was the year that, yet again, math incited wonder in me, just as it had so many years ago with a bottle full of coins. In was in large part due to this experience at this very important time in my life that I began to excel in mathematics and was placed in the advanced mathematical courses throughout the remainder of my K-12 school career. I was able to view myself as a mathematically proficient person and I thank Mr. Kuhl for believing in me in this way so that I could again believe in myself.
Jump ahead a decade and the tables had turned. I was now the teacher at the front (ok…I was rarely at the front!) of the room. I was young and didn’t know much about teaching, but I did know how I wanted my students to perceive themselves. I made it a point to avoid the “cume folder” until I had a concern about a child. While this might be a controversial decision, I felt that it was critical to allow each child to define themselves in my classroom. I had seen too many teachers determine a child’s ability before they ever entered the classroom on the first day and many of the opportunities that were afforded these children, or not, was based upon these determiniations. I was determined not to do this. Every child that entered my classroom door did so as a blank slate and, in my mind, capable of accomplishing amazing things! Getting to know the child never changed this view, nor did reading the “cume”. I wanted to be the Mr. Kuhl of my students’ lives. Especially in math, where so many students had determined they were “not math people”, I believed that I had a responsibility to show each and every one of my students that they could be, and in fact already were, “math people”.
I taught in the classroom setting for 12 years, as both a K/1 and 6th grade teacher. I enjoyed this time in my life a great deal and perhaps learned more than I ever taught. In my last year as a classroom teacher, I was honored with the experience of a lifetime. I was awarded the Presidential Award for Math and Science Teaching (PAEMST) and was flown to Washington D.C. to meet President Barack Obama. (more on this experience here) In a very surreal moment in the East Room of the White House, I had the priviledge to listen to POTUS thank me for my service to students. I look back on this experience and each time pinch myself to ensure that it wasn’t all just an elaborate dream.
Today, I am both a math consultant for the Stanislaus County Office of Education and a math instructor of pre-service teachers with California State University, Stanislaus. It is my hope that through these roles I can tell my story and positively influence the mathematical lives of children for years to come.