Adventures In Algebra: Existentially Solving For Why

Math Atheist

I’ve always been what Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes calls a math atheist.  I understand why numbers exist, and I comprehend the importance of basic math.  What does not seem to compute with me is when we start having to deal with fractions of numbers, decimals, and the rest of the concepts that start the downward spiral toward adding in the letters of the alphabet. That’s right; I’m talking about algebra.

As a math atheist, I believe the science involved in math is somehow made up in order to confuse those that have an undying affection for all things word related and none of the things number related. But it would stand to reason if I love words, then I would find comfort in the kind of math where they start adding in letters.   I not only do not find comfort in it, I honestly think that there is not a time I have ever used it after the year I graduated high school and passed the math in college.

So, why talk about math if I hate it so immensely? It’s one of those things in life that makes you realize God has a sense of humor. If someone had asked me this time last year what I would be teaching this fall, I probably wouldn’t have said math.  I probably wouldn’t have said high school.  I know I definitely would not have said high school math, but I love teaching, so when an opportunity opened to teach Algebra I to 9th graders for a maternity leave I decided to give it my best shot.  Going straight to high school from 2nd grade was a lot like being dumped at a dance contest with two left feet and chronic knee pain, but I was determined to make this work.

Things have been going well, and I’ve been reflecting on the first three weeks of teaching. I’ve learned a lot by teaching algebra, and I have a much different take away on the things I have taught in the first few weeks of school.  I already told you I wasn’t endowed with a math brain, so you probably won’t be shocked that while the things I’ve learned had to do with math, they weren’t all that mathematical.

Most people know that all numbers fall into specific categories.  Two of these categories you can place numbers into are rational and irrational.  People can also fit nicely into those two categories.  This is applicable no matter who you are or what you do.  The biggest thing to remember is that with people and numbers the rational and irrational both fit into a larger category: real.  It’s okay to be irrational, as long as you remember to stay real. And who among us hasn’t parked themselves for a few days on the side of  irrational?

In order to solve any problem in algebra, you have to remember how to combine like terms.  You can’t add things up that aren’t supposed to be together.  How can you tell if numbers should be together?  You have to examine them closely.  Variables can be a pain. Adding 4r to 2b is still 4r + 2b.  It’s never going to add to up 6.  And, just like in algebra when you have people in your life, sometimes it is best to keep the ones that are alike together.  They will always add up correctly that way.  I’ll be the first to say I’ve tried to combine myself with people that were unlike me and tried to make us add up.  In order to have a successful relationship with those people I have to remember to see individual parts, and not all jumbled up together.  This helps me when solving problems in both math and with people.

The equation is another concept we address immediately in algebra.  What a great concept! When we think of an equation we can think of a scale.  The things on one side have to equal what is on the other side of the equal sign.  Sure, there are different ways of writing them on each side, but they will add up.  That variable is just an unknown on one side.  We all have unknowns when trying to make things add up in our life.  We are sometimes given puzzles with missing pieces. We can think of the task of working equations as practice for the real world.  There’s always going to be a y (or a why???) on one side of the problem.  There is always a solution.  All you have to do is remember to keep a balance when you are adding and removing things in your life to make sure the scale doesn’t tip to one side.

Inequalities have also gotten me thinking.  You solve an inequality like equations for the most part. Sometimes things aren’t equal on both sides in math or in real world relationships.  Sometimes one side is greater than the other side. The hard part for so many students is figuring out after you solve the problem whether you have to flip the sign the opposite way.  The rules say if you divide or multiply by a negative you need to flip the sign.  So, that’s also a great life lesson, right?  If you are multiplying by a negative, you are going to have to change something.  Rarely do negatives do anything good in our lives if nothing changes.

So I am not teaching what I thought I would this fall.  The students are doing a fabulous job putting up with an algebra teacher that is doing her best to teach the rules while questioning them herself.  For now you can find me  reminding students to show their work while I  glance at a clock every day with a sign on it placed by the classroom teacher that says,“Time will pass, will you?”  What a great question! I hope I pass.

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