Pamela Bronson: How I Became a Math Teacher

People who know me are not surprised that I teach, but they are often surprised that I teach math. I’m a bit surprised myself.

 People think of me as an “arts and literature” kind of person, and it’s true that I’m a voracious reader, of quality fiction as well as science and history. I like writing, too.

I was always good at math, but for most of my school career it seemed rather boring, especially compared to English, science, history, and languages. As I moved further up in high school, though, math grew more and more interesting. I’m not going to claim I loved having to do proofs in Geometry, but they had a puzzle-solving aspect that I enjoyed. I also loved analytic geometry – how fascinating that a quadratic equation was really a parabola in disguise (or vice versa)! Physics seemed more fun than I expected, too, and physics basically looks at the world and the universe through the lens of math. How cool is it that the path of a bouncing ball is also a parabola, or that a paraboloid mirror reflects light to its focus?

 Sadly, I never took the high school math course I most wanted. A wonderful teacher at my school, Mr. Smith, created the Math: Liberal Arts course so that students who didn’t plan to take Pre-Calculus and Calculus could get their required three years of math and learn the secret (which is far too well kept) that math is actually fun. But alas, I was preparing to do Pre-med studies in college, so I needed Pre-Calc and Calc and had no time for another math course. (One year I was scheduled for lunch at 10 AM as it was. I was a bit like Hermione, but without access to time-expanding magic.) Nevertheless, I would hang around Mr. Smith’s room, looking at The Annotated Alice (which examines the references to math, logic, etc. in Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass), the cardboard kaleidocycles and platonic solids covered with M. C. Escher’s Tesselations, along with the other tantalizing materials his students played with and called it school. 

 I first realized how much I enjoy teaching math when I volunteered in an SAT-prep program started by my church. I taught there for five years, constantly trying to improve my teaching materials and approach, so as to keep the kids’ attention and helping them to grasp the essential concepts. I learned a lot from the books we used and from the kids, too.

 Math includes fun ideas and so many connections to “real life” – sadly,  most math courses overlook both. One of my goals as a math teacher involves bringing these things out, to convince kids that math is both fun and relevant!

 The book we’ve been using this year for Geometry tries to at least show the relevance of math, but ignores the intriguing connections of math to art, history, literature, and even jokes. It also ignores some useful traditional memory aids, too, like SOHCAHTOA.

 I’ve supplemented the course with bits of math history, drawings, symmetry art, and photos of math at work in the world, even a little Plato, (as well as the terrible jokes required of math teachers), but it would be so much better if those creative aspects were included in the curriculum.

 That’s one of the reasons I’m so excited that we’ll be using Harold Jacobs’ amazing books Elementary Algebra and Geometry. (Don’t tell Mr. Smith, but I suspect Mr. Jacobs was an even better math teacher, though they certainly have a lot in common.) He uses:

  • passages from The Hobbit, Through the Looking Glass, and Thurber’s humorous essay “The Dog that Bit People” to teach logic

  • art by M.C.Escher to teach geometric concepts,

  • a B.C. cartoon to introduce the Parallel Postulate,

  • puzzles,

  • surprising photos,

  • and so much more!

It reminds me a bit of the little stories and jokes a good preacher uses to get you interested in and thinking about the topic of a sermon, though I think he does it even better than most preachers. Incidentally, Mr. Jacobs is a member of John McArthur’s church.

I love this quotation from Mr. Jacobs: “Students who are enjoying what they are learning do not continually ask why they have to learn it.”  Another thing I like about Mr. Jacobs’ books is the chapter groupings containing half a dozen or so lessons which focus on one general topic, like “The Integers”, “Fractions”, “Square Roots”, “Parallel Lines”, and “Circles”.

 The book I’ve been using to teach this year employs a method of circular review, which means that each lesson is on a totally different subject from the previous one. I frequently found myself quoting Monty Python, “And now for something completely different.” I’m grateful to the parents who gave me the opportunity to teach their children this year. It has been a real stretching and growing experience for me, but I enjoyed the challenge.

 I am very excited about being able to spend an entire class – two classes in most cases – on various aspects of circles, for instance, or of natural numbers. I think it will facilitate teaching, learning, and serenity. I’m also looking forward to teaching for Seasons again next year, with books that reflect my joy in math and which I hope will convey some of that joy to my students.

Pamela Bronson

Seasons Instructor