312. Young Mathematicians

As a volunteer, I adopted about eighty first graders and decided to stay with them as long as possible – maybe even until they graduated from high school. When they were in second grade, I spent three hours per week in Paul Oh’s second grade, helping him teach math. I’ve already written a little about his calm, thoughtful approach, but there’s more to say. Like many teachers, he struggles with a variety of attitudes about mathematics – perhaps his own (after all, he went to school, and probably didn’t always have perfect math teachers), but certainly the attitudes the children brought with them. These attitudes had come from parents, siblings, teachers, media.
I have some good news and some bad news. First, the bad news. Paul’s struggle was not easy, and even though I, as an observer, could see the growth that was going on in Paul’s class, I don’t know how easy it was for him to see it. I had worked with many of these children when they were in first grade. Now I was able to sit comfortably away from the struggle, away from conferences with parents who perhaps expected more miracles than Paul delivered, outside the system which may have had lots of pieces of paper indicating what children were supposed to know, and when they were supposed to know it. So I had an easy time of it. But I doubt whether Paul did.
Now for the good news. What Paul did with these children helped them become mathematicians. Some of these children had come to him believing that they weren’t good at math, and never could be. Others had believed that math was theirs; it was what separated them from the mediocrity of the masses. They could solve math problems, and that’s what proved that they were worthwhile people. There had been children in between, but they had probably wondered whether they were geniuses or total failures.
But by the end of second grade, all of these children were mathematicians. That doesn’t mean they’d all go to MIT and spend their lives thinking mathematical thoughts, but neither would they see math as something that belonged to an elite. When Paul gave them a problem to solve, they thought more about the problem, and less about their own competence or lack thereof. If the problem was hard, they thought harder. If it started to seem too hard, they asked for help, but not with the kind of desperation that can sometimes be heard when children have trouble with math. In Paul’s class, they’d tasted success. It had tasted good, and they wanted more. There’s a lot to be said about the educational value of wanting to be able to do something and believing it can be done.

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