Things I’ve Learned About Writing From Teaching Math

“Who would like to show their process on the board?”

joke This is a question I ask many times a week. I teach Algebra and Precalculus at Renaissance School. I love it.

One of the challenges I have teaching at a school like Renaissance, which is for high aptitude students in Arts, Humanities, and Sciences, is that some of my students have almost a spooky natural facility with math – but many of the artists, actors, humanitarians, photographers, and musicians have developed something close to a phobia of it by the time they’ve gotten to high school. Since math is a required subject for graduation no matter the track of their studies, one way or another, we’ve got to make it to the end of the year.

My main goal is for every student to finish the class with confidence. They don’t need to be a wiz; I just want them to be able to tell themselves, “I can do this.”

paranormaldistributionSo I focus on process, not outcomes. Getting the right answer the fastest doesn’t accrue any brownie points in my class. Instead, I encourage students to come up to the board and show their thought process. Like I often say, “There’s more than one path from here to the MudHouse.” And I often add, while they’re nervously approaching the board for the first time, “We’re all on the same team. We’ve got your back. Let’s get through this problem together.”

So, it was a HUGE thrill about two months into the school year when one of my most math-phobic students said, “Ms. Carlson, can I show my process on the board for problem 37? I’m getting stuck and I don’t know what to do next.” Yes. Yes you can.

find_x_lolNow that the school year is coming to a close, I’ve almost worked myself out of a job. The students work together in groups. The quick ones race ahead, learn the new formulas, and teach them to their peers. Everyone is going to be wrapping up the year with confidence. With a process for solving problems.

Which, finally, brings me back to what teaching math has taught me about writing. I’m not sure I appreciated it fully in the beginning, but one of the things that has made BACCA a great writing group for the last four years is the feeling that we’re all on the same team. We’re not competing with one another; we have different skills and aptitudes; we work together to give candid feedback and solve problems. We, too, focus on process, not outcomes. Naturally, we all harbor dreams of seeing this or that work published. But our esteem in the eyes of each other is based in the work we do in the small ways each month, not the grand finale.

Writing may be a solitary exercise, but improving as a writer is a team effort. Just like math.

Bethany Joy Carlson is a founding member of BACCA, a WriterHouse Board Member, and owner of The Artist’s Partner.

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