My first (and second) memory of learning math

Some time ago Wendy Menard got me thinking about my first memory of learning mathematics. What was it?

Its two things, actually. Both happened in fifth-grade. My teacher was a redheaded man with a great beard, Mr. O’Discoll (a.k.a Mr. O). Great guy, great energy. He made learning fun. He even played me and a couple of my friends in basketball at the end of the school year in the school gymnasium. We lost 100-98. I’ll never live it down.

Anyway, I digress. Back to learning math. The first vivid memory I have of learning math is the multiplication worksheets that Mr. O would give us. He would time us. I don’t  recall it ever being a race or competition to finish, but I do remember being pressured by time constraints.

The second memory comes from an exam that I took in his class. I don’t remember the math that was on it, but before the exam, I remember him telling us to always check our work after answering the problems. Well on this particular exam, I remember following his advice for about 3/4 of the exam, finding and fixing several mistakes, but then stopping — thinking that I had already done a great job. I was presumptuous. When Mr. O handed the exam back, I had a perfect paper — up until where I stopped checking my work. I had so many errors in the unchecked portion of my exam. I distinctly remember a comment he wrote directly on the exam: “why did you stop checking your work, Brian?”

Sometimes I think about how these two distant moments from my childhood have impacted how I teach mathematics.

Firstly, I teach mathematics the way I was taught math. I think this is the norm for so many teachers regardless of the subject — and it’s not a bad thing. It’s reality. In my case, drill-in-kill was what I experienced early and often, like in the case of Mr. O’s multiplication worksheets. This experience brainwashed me equate math with speed and correct answers…and this is very evident today in my teaching. I try hard to combat this, but I am not the most inquiry-based math teacher. I struggle to move beyond test-prep style learning. Its a product of the culture in which I teach, yes, but its also a direct result of the math education I received. This bothers me.

Secondly, through the years I have always been prone to mistakes when it comes to learning and teaching math. I consider myself a slow thinker, but I don’t want to be. Thanks to my fifth-grade class (and others no doubt), I want to get it on the first attempt. Sometimes I feel like I have to get it on the first attempt. Whether it is typos in handouts,  mistakes in grading, or my blunders in planning thoughtful mathematical experiences for my algebra 2 kids, I always find errors that could have easily been edited had I not been too lazy or overconfident to dig deeper. Heck, even my typo-laden tweets are evidence of this. Mr. O’s exam and his advice are always in the back of my head. I do my best to follow his advice, but I fail much more often than I succeed.




Where it all began

Being first a student for seventeen years now a teacher for ten, I’ve been in and around school for fairly long time. Call me crazy, but I wanted to dedicate a post to my first memories, and feelings, of formalized schooling. Two distinct memories come to mind.

Clark Elementary School

The first was my first full year of kindergarten and Clark Elementary School. It was a neighborhood school not far from where I lived at the time. The kindergarten students were scheduled to attend only half of the standard school day. My cohort came in around noon and stayed until 2:30 pm. My mom worked long hours and couldn’t afford to take the day off work to take me into school, so my caregiver dropped me on the first day. And I was off.

I don’t remember a lot from kindergarten. I don’t remember my teacher’s name, but it may have been Ms. Wiley. Not sure. My first solid memories involve me playing house in the back of the room, memorizing my ABCs by connecting small cubes together, and saying “president” instead of “present” when the teacher called my name for attendance. On the first day, I recall sitting at the edge of a table crowded with 5th and 6th graders during lunch, not knowing where I belonged. I don’t know how I ended up there because soon after an adult redirected me back to my classroom where all my classmates were.

Lafayette Contemporary Academy

The second memory comes from first grade at Lafayette Contemporary Academy. Unlike my kindergarten school, LCA was not a neighborhood school. In fact, I took the school bus an hour each way. The school was on the east side of Cleveland and I lived on the west side. I now know that it was a Magnet School. I’ve also learned that it has been demolished.

I attended LCA up until fifth grade. I loved it. There are so many awesome memories that come to mind during those early years of my life. But this is a post about firsts, and I’ll never forget my very first day. I don’t remember the morning bus ride being all that eventful, but it was different story when I arrived at school on that first day. What happened?

I cried. A lot.

I distinctively remember my first grade teacher, Ms. Malloy, wearing a white dress with large pink flowers consoling me the morning of the first day. She was so nice. (She ended up being my fourth grade teacher too.) I attribute my waterworks to being so far away from home around strangers in a place, and neighborhood, that I knew absolutely nothing about. Like many kids that age, I was pushed out of my comfort zone and scared.

There you have it, my first memories of school. What did this post accomplish, I’m not sure yet. But it was fun to go back to where it all began for a little while.

And now that I think about it, my confusion in kindergarten and vulnerability in first grade do seem to be good analogies for my entire life. All is not lost. Cheers.




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