Saturday, January 23, 2021

Life Of A Math Teacher: Math Mammals
Here is Sirius, my ten-year-old tuxedo cat by day. 
But his alternate identity is that of Math Mammal Extraordinaire!

P.S. Get off the counter, you hooligan.

This story begins with a student who struggled to get his head in the game.

Now, this is not a particularly unusual scenario in my line of work. Apparently, teenage brains are not necessarily wired to adore algebra. So when I would show up to lay some teaching on this particular 13-year-old boy, he tended to started slow. During the first few minutes of our class, when I lobbed him some easy questions about, oh say, how to divide fractions or calculate the cube root of -27, he mostly stared at me. I knew he knew what I was asking, but he couldn't quite summon up the brain waves to adequately communicate his answer. As our class time ticked by, slowly but surely, his neurons would begin to hum, and then gradually vibrate with information. By the time our hour was up, he was nimbly zipping through formulas and equations with lightning speed, and releasing his inner Einstein with joy.

After observing this phenomenon at work for several weeks in a row, I stepped gently into a conversation with the student in question. Looking for a way to keep my comments as friendly and inoffensive as possible - because no one likes to be told, Hey, you're slow! - I decided, as I often do, to lean into a metaphor. 

And the first one to leap into my mind was that of a hamster running on a hamster wheel

At the beginning of class, it's like the part of your brain that learns math is a lazy little hamster. He steps into his wheel but at first, can barely move it at all. He struggles and tries but just keeps falling down in an exhausted furry heap at the bottom of the wheel. But he bravely keeps getting back up and trying, and eventually he taps into his energy and gets the wheel moving and ultimately finds that he can run at full speed, with the wheel spinning madly under his tiny pink paws.

The mental picture of this diminutive mammal sleepily crawling out of his warm bed of cedar chips and hauling his unmotivated self into the unpleasant confines of his cold, cruel wheel, dopily incapable of any sort of sustained motion, amused us greatly. 

And it stuck with us.

Over the weeks, we embellished the story, riffing about how Hammy - our affectionate name for this furry friend - spends his down time (watching YouTube) and what motivates him to get moving on the Wheel Of Math Knowledge (food and nearly nothing else.) The story also became a useful metaphor for gauging my student's mindset; when I breezily asked, "How's Hammy today?" my student and I both knew I was really asking if he was ready to concentrate and focus. 

Hammy has grown into a useful member of our math-learning team.

And soon, other students caught on to this magic, and wanted a Hammy of their own. 

So now the beloved OG has a handful of compadres:

Hamrietta the Hamster
Jeff the Squirrel
Squawk the Parrot (a parrot is technically not a mammal but the concept holds)
Lala the Bunny
Chloe the Fox
Hamlet the Hamster

and Jammy the Hamster, who is Hammy's brother.


Some of my students are still mulling over the options, and I'm looking forward to getting a firm lock on their math mammals' identities.

But this game also begs another question. Does the teacher have a math mammal?

And the resounding answer: yes!

My math mammal is a tuxedo cat, in fact, the very same cat who lives in real life at my house.

He has huge owl eyes and distinguished white whiskers and always appears in formal dress, with his white collar crisp and neat under his spotless black jacket.

And whenever I am called upon to teach math - even if you were to shake me out of a sound sleep - my math mammal immediately snaps to attention. He slips into a brown tweed blazer with leather patches on the elbows, grabs a handy pointer and a slender reed of chalk, steps to the nearest old school blackboard, and launches effortlessly into the finer points of factorials, polar coordinates, or whatever the algebraic topic of the day may be.

My math mammal's name is The Professor, and thanks to him, my head always stays in the game. 

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