Way back in the 1990s, I was a math teacher. I got into math because it was the only area I could teach and not be expected to coach anything. I’d never been an athlete or participated in any sports so the idea of me coaching a sport was laughable. History was and is my passion (along with writing), but most history teachers were coaches so that wasn’t even a possibility for me. Teaching math assured me of a teaching position without a coaching required.

I took a different approach to teaching math. First, as stated last week, I wanted my students to do much of their assignments and tests without the aid of a calculator. Most problems could be solved with good adding/subtracting skills and the multiplication tables. Doing it that way showed the students how the process worked, then when the numbers got larger, the process was the same, only they used calculators to handle the larger numbers.

I also included a spelling test at the beginning of the year. My students howled at that idea until I told them the reason. I’d been a literacy tutor for several years and one student had a big impact on me. I watched this grown man bawl his eyes out when he told about how fearful he was carrying around large sums of money. If he got robbed, he’d have no money for food or to pay the rent. He had to do that because he couldn’t write a check. He couldn’t spell numbers so he lived his life in high stress and fear because he couldn’t write a check. He couldn’t read or write well so credit cards were not an option. I told my students I’d promised myself that I’d never let a student out of my class without knowing how to spell numbers. Once my students understood the reason behind the spelling test, they gladly took it. Besides, for most of them it was an easy A.

I also gave writing assignments to my math classes. Again my students howled about having to use English in math class. I told them out in the real world, they wouldn’t hand in a paper with a bunch of problems solved on it. They had to write up their findings to submit to their bosses, and that was why they needed good writing skills. They still grumbled but didn’t argue with me. The first quarter I gave them a list of famous mathematicians and had them pick one and research them. A few grudgingly said it was interesting. The next quarter they had to interview three people who used math in their jobs. A loud howl went up as they said they didn’t know anyone who did. What they found out by doing this exercise was *everyone* uses math in their jobs to some extent. One even commented that his mother was surprised to realize how much math she used in her job so it was eye-opening for both of them. For the third quarter, I gave them a list of mathematical concepts and they researched one of them.

The last quarter was the best. I let them pick something to write a paper about, but it had to have something to do with math. I was amazed at what they did. One guy designed a cabinet for his sound system in his truck, one guy designed a house, two brothers welded Sierpinski triangles from scrap iron, one wrote a paper about how the Theory of Chaos could be used by a lawyer (her ambition), and one helped her father calculate a feed mixture at their feed store. I was amazed at the extent that students went to use math on some project. We had a show-and-tell in class, and it was so much fun. One student commented he learned more from the writing projects than he did in class. Um, didn’t know what to say to that, but I’m glad he learned something.

So I really was a weird teacher and shouldn’t be surprised why I didn’t meet their idea of a teacher using a certain curriculum. Maybe sometime I’ll tell you about the quilt we made in 7th grade math class, then auctioned off as a fundraiser for a scholarship.

Wish my math teacher had been like you. Then again, the thing I remember most from three years of math with Mr. L is that he stressed that in math it is a zero; not an “o.” See that? Words were important to that math teacher, too!