Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Name

I feel a slight need to justify, if only to myself, the reason I chose the name I did for this blog.  Yes, I know it's cliche and I also know that people looking for Douglas Adams websites rather than teacher websites will end up here and will click away in a huff perhaps when they discover the truth.  But I couldn't resist.

When I first got my job, I decided to make large, friendly signs in bubble letters to hang up on my walls.  One read "Don't Panic" and the other read "The Answer is 42".  I thought the students would probably find them kind of dorky, or may not get the reference at all, but I thought that these two signs represented much of my teaching philosophy.  (It turns out that these signs got about half my students reading Douglas Adams, which I think is a major success.)  I have always been an incredibly anxious math student.  I had a few terrible teachers, and never felt like I was all that good at it (probably because my older brother was a bit of a math prodigy and I could never compete). I took math in college because I enjoyed the challenge and the break from more writing based classes but again, I never considered myself a serious math student.  As I signed up for each new math class I would have moments of panic because my abilities to do math seemed magical and out of my own control and I thought they may leave me as the challenges I faced got harder.  I both loved and hated the fact that I could stare at something for hours and not be able to make any progress despite my best efforts, then mysteriously in the night the solution would come.  So I always felt that there would be a point where it just stopped working and I would be scared yet excited by each new math class and was always frightened out of my wits when tests came up.  Despite my anxiety I did quite well and am now using my math abilities professionally but I worry that the anxiety I experienced kept me from fully exploring this part of myself.  (I ended up majoring in history, not math even though I took enough math classes for a major.)  I think a sense of panic plagues many students as well and my greatest task is to help them relax, enjoy the math, and work through those moments when their brains refuse to get it no matter how much the students want to get it.

The answer is 42 part of it is more for my entertainment but I also think having this sign up is important.  Students will often jokingly suggest that they put down all their answers for a test as 42 and I tell them that it will make me laugh, but they won't get any credit for it.  Sill, though, I think they like the fact that they can just put something down when they don't know what to do.  When students are stuck on a problem, often times they leave their sheets blank.  I hate this because it seems so hopeless.  When I'm stuck on a problem I always try something, write something down, play with it, tease it until something resembling an answer comes out.  Almost always we can't immediately see to the end of a problem, but a lot of students just give up if they can't see the solution right away.  I like the idea that they always have something to put down, some way to break the white plane of paper that is so intimidating.  To break the graphite barrier and to play a little bit with math, even if it's just writing down a number.  Because I think that once pencil is to paper, it's harder to just give up and leave the problem untried.

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