Beating Back the Math Demons

Email a Friend

“I just hate math so much! I’m so bad at it!” the student shouted. Leibnitz, Euclid and Pythagoras stared at him from their places on my classroom walls, and a small laugh escaped my throat at the surprising volume of his voice and the severity of his declaration.

“I’m sorry, Frankie, that’s not funny; I just didn’t expect that to be the reason you looked so upset,” I said. His face had been contorted, and his hands were wrung around his pencil so tightly that he was trembling. He looked at his feet, and assured me that yes, he really hated math that much.

It was the first day of middle school, full of expectations, excitement and anxiety. On that day each September, the new sixth graders are routinely overwhelmed and exhausted from a day of facing so much change from their beloved elementary schools.

The fearful look on Frankie’s face was not routine, though. He was in agony. While his angst toward math had become nearly unmanageable in elementary school, it seemed he was able to get by because eventually the math lesson would stop, and the teacher would move on to something else.

But that day, for the first time, Frankie found himself sitting in a math classroom, surrounded by pictures and models of mathematical concepts, watching a teacher who was destined to talk only about math and was handing out math textbooks.

I tried to be empathetic. Being afraid of math is not something I can appreciate; however, I do have a fairly unhealthy fear of spiders. I imagined sitting in a room dedicated to the study of spiders, complete with pictures and models. My jaw clenched and a chill crept up my spine. We both had an irrational fear, but Frankie was the only one being forced to face his every day with no help.

“O.K., well, you don’t have to worry about it right now, because we’re not going to be doing a math lesson today, we’re only going over routines," I said. "Do you think that will be O.K.?”

He nodded, looking relieved. I attempted to reassure him with a few feeble promises about working hard and succeeding. He nodded again, looking thoroughly unconvinced, and we returned to our first day rituals.

I learned later that Frankie had had anxiety about math since second grade. He had not mastered some basic skills, which became a compounded problem year after year.

He was never eligible for extra help or services because somehow he managed to score a low 3 on the state test each year, which qualified as "proficient."

Once, in fifth grade, he was sure he understood a unit on geometry, and came home boasting about his certain 100 on the test, only to be crushed by a big, red “35%” on top of his paper the next day.

Obviously reliving his embarrassment, he added, “I don’t even know what '35%' means, but I know it’s bad.”

“I understand how you feel, Frankie,” I told him, “and I am going to help you catch up so that you feel comfortable sitting in math class.” The assurance was met with a doubtful look and a shrug.

So began the months-long struggle to catch Frankie up on content, help him improve his work habits and most importantly, persuade him that it was possible for him to understand math.

Once-a-week tutoring during lunch is optional for my students. For Frankie, it was compulsory. I requested that Frankie be added into my extended day class, even though he technically wasn’t entitled to math remediation.

He started by practicing simple computation facts that he had never committed to memory with flashcards. On his own, he found a Web site that quizzed on addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.

After two weeks, and before I had administered a classroom exam, I gave Frankie a test on simple computations. He got 78 percent of them correct. The test didn’t count toward his average, but the small success was enough to convince Frankie to give math another try.

There were three kids in his class who were excellent math students and amazing examples of character. I confided in them that Frankie needed some support catching up, and asked if they might want to help him.

“Yes! Can we?” they asked. I treated them to pizza the next day while reviewing tutoring strategies and modeling kindness to someone who is struggling. They took the job more seriously than I expected.

During the next few months, with as much school-based guidance as I could muster, Frankie’s work habits improved. He learned that practice helps, and that when a teacher says, “Are there any questions?” she really means it.

He learned that studying does not mean staring at an open textbook, and that fractions actually do make sense. His peer tutors modeled good note-taking and organization, and filled gaps in his knowledge during independent and group work.

Once in a while I had to tattle to his mother that he hadn’t done his homework. A few times I had to go down to the cafeteria to retrieve him for tutoring when he “forgot.” But mostly, he seemed grateful for the extra help.

He did fail a test or two, but a failing grade was no longer a signal for him to throw in the towel.

This story doesn’t end with Frankie having the highest grades in the class, or graduating with honors in math. Though his math skills did improve steadily, I’m quite sure he has no interest in being a mathematician when he grows up.

On the last day of school, he thanked me for my help, but said, “I still don’t think math is my favorite subject.”

Favorite subject? I was amazed that it was even in contention.

He scored another “low 3” on the state test that year, indicating “one year of growth.” I’d like to think his growth during sixth grade exceeded what was simply expected.

The following September, Frankie was in seventh grade, and entirely too cool to be happy to see one of his old teachers. I returned the curt nod of recognition he threw in my direction, and hoped that this year’s first day of school went a bit more smoothly for him than last year’s.

I decided to seek out his new math teacher to share my experience with Frankie, so that she would be prepared to handle his potential anxiety.

At the beginning of third period, I walked past her room, but saw that it was occupied by a class. Just before I turned to walk back upstairs, I caught a glimpse of Frankie sitting in the second row.

I almost didn’t recognize him. There he sat, under a poster of Sir Isaac Newton, smiling and raising his hand to answer a question.