### Sometimes I can’t laugh about it

Not too impressive on the surface, but get this - I’ve only marked *the first page* of the test papers. (Strike’s been delayed ’till next week.) Eight to go, and *I* wouldn’t bet against me.

I’ll finish them tomorrow; why give myself nighmares?

Question that I ask without a hint of facetiousness: what do students learn in math class for the first twelve years of their educations? I’m completely serious about this; I have a few dozen students who seem to be so utterly disconnected from the subject; numbers and equations have *no meaning* to them. I can’t fathom how they could go through twelve years of classes and still be at that level, but apparently it’s possible. I try to address the disconnection, by explaining things that they should know by now, but I can’t give them over a decade of background in the two weeks of leeway I have in a pretty tightly-packed curriculum. (Nor do I necessarily think I should; Jenny D has a good post on watered-down courses, and I expressed my ambivalence in her comments.)

Last week, the equations finally got the better of one of my students, who handed in her test forty-five minutes into the ninety-minute period with all the resignation of a defeated battalion. Before I’d returned to my office, she’d already sent me an email telling me where things stood. She was dropping the course, she said; she’d tried and tried and tried, but she’d always had so much difficulty with math. She’d barely passed grade 11 math, the last class she’d taken, and that was with the almost-daily assistance of a tutor. It wasn’t that she didn’t *understand* the material, she told me, it was that she couldn’t *remember* all of those formulas. (There’d been all of two equations I’d required the students to commit to memory for the purposes of the test.) “At least I tried,” she concluded her message, “and I probably did learn some statistics that will be useful to me one day.”

I didn’t reply to her email immediately. My instinct was to invite her to my office to go over strategies for learning math, as she clearly had no idea what was involved. A lot of my students think that I have a phenomenal memory; nothing could be further from the truth. I have trouble *remembering* math, too, but I *understand* it, and that’s the difference. But whenever I try to go over strategies for reasoning out the problems, I see four dozen eyes glaze over, and half the time a student will raise his hand and ask me which part of the junk I was saying he can ignore, and what the important formula in the question is. I have no idea how to deal with this. Technically it’s not my responsibility - it was their high school teachers’, or their elementary school teachers’ - to teach them these basics, to teach them what math *is* - but if I don’t help them, I don’t know who will. If they fail my class, they’ll just end up taking it again with another instructor, and that’s not what they need.

I decided to mark this student’s test, even knowing I’d probably never see her again. I stopped when I got to the second question. In the space below it she’d written her answer of (6/26)^10 - which was incorrect - and then left it in that form, with a sentence explaining, “Calculator doesn’t have a fraction button…what do I do?”

It’s not a good sign that a mere week after vacation, I had to sit on my hands to keep myself from pointing out that she had been one of the students to get help from me with her calculator, and if I recalled correctly, I was pretty sure that it had a fraction button.