Monday, July 30, 2012

On Critical Thinking, Algebra, and Math Anxiety

Today marks a first for me: I have two pieces running in two different sections of The New York Times on the same day!

Over at The Learning Network, the first of a week-long series of critical thinking questions is up for reader consideration. My editor at The Learning Network, Katherine Schulten, has asked readers to let her know whether or not they like my questions, and if enough people are excited about them, I get promoted to weekly feature status. So come on over, take the critical thinking quiz, and submit your feedback to Katherine.

At Motherlode, I weigh in on Andrew Hacker's opinion piece about the necessity of algebra in American education. My response is personal, rather than policy-based, and comes out of my recent return to Algebra I.

I am reposting the first of my posts about going back to math class below, and for my further adventures in Algebra I, read "Algebra I: Still Hazy After All These Years," "Exponents, Products, and [my mathematical] Powers" and "Exponent Negativity."

Quantifying the Unknown

I have a recurring dream: I am in college, or law school - sometimes high school - and I have not attended classes all semester. I don't know where my locker is, let alone the combination, and I'm not sure where the classrooms are. I certainly don't know what material we have covered. It's exam time, and I know I won't even be able to find the classroom so I can take the exam. I know that if I don't pass the exam, I will not be able to graduate, so I have to find the main office and I can ask them where my classes are. I wander around the school, often in that slow, stunted, underwater way, and get nowhere as the minutes of the exam period tick by.

One fun twist on last night's version of the dream is that while I was digging around in my materials, looking for any clue as to my class schedule, I found an application for an internship with Billy Collins. Despite that nice surprise, I still woke up nervous and flummoxed.

The class I fail in my dreams is usually math, which is absolutely predictable if you know me at all. I have never done well in math, and as a result, I have serious math anxiety. I can grade papers and calculate percentages, but anything more complex than that brings on the shakes. So when I woke up this morning at 4:32 A.M., drenched in sweat, I decided to return to the place of my defeat (again) and go back to school.

Fortunately, the math teacher at my school is amazing. She's the math teacher I wish I'd been lucky enough to have when I was in middle school. She's organized, demanding, witty, and kind, and every time I poke my head into her classroom, her students are enjoying themselves.

I know! That was a new concept for me, too.

I checked the middle school schedule and realized I have a prep period during her Algebra I classes on Wednesday and Friday, so starting next week, I'm back in school. I will have my own textbook, and I will even try to do some of the homework once I catch up to the kids (if that even happens).

It's time to put my money - well, my pride, I suppose - where my mouth is. I encourage my students to be brave, diligent, and never back down from an intellectual challenge. I try to model a love of education, a genuine thirst for knowledge that drives what I read, watch, and listen to. They know I am a frequent buyer at The Teaching Company, and that I listen to lectures on my iPod when I stack wood, fold laundry, and chop vegetables for dinner. Currently, I'm listening to a course on the evolution of the English language, and I love to share the tidbits I've gleaned with my students. They know I listen to courses on English, history, and science, but they also know about my math aversion. They joke about it. I joke about it. But it's not really that funny; it's actually quite sad.

I am hoping that my efforts to remedy my math anxiety will put weight behind my words. I hate math, yes. I hate the obsessive attention to plusses and minuses. I hate the inflexibility of numbers. But the excuse that "my brain just does not work that way" doesn't cut it when I simultaneously tell my students that they can do anything - anything - they want to do.

Well, dammit, so can I.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Crab Apple Sling Shot Sting

I have a post in progress, but I was so impressed by the large-scale water balloon assault my children planned for Tim's arrival at home after 12 hours on call that I had to post it.

It was, in its execution, less than impressive.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Following Tom

I love walking across the street to our tiny village post office. My proximity to this lovely little outpost of civilization is particularly convenient just before Christmas, when I remember what a nightmare the pre-holiday post office was when we lived in cities. These days, I stroll over, wrapped presents in hand, and chat with Jewel, our postmistress about the news of the neighborhood as she tabulates my postage. Today was particularly lovely, however, as I received a package. I handed Jewel the "you have a package!" yellow slip from my post office box and she handed me an envelope from HarperCollins. I ripped it open, and there it was. My advance copy of the Following Atticus paperback.

I flipped to the P.S. section to find my part in the book: an interview with the author, Tom Ryan. Yes, I get to do interviews all the time, and yes, seeing my name in print has lost a teensy bit of the lustre and thrill I felt when I saw my first published pieces, but it's still pretty damn cool.

What makes this particular project special to me is that my involvement in this book is a gift from Tom. Tom discovered my work - through Twitter, I think - and we started corresponding about our writing. At that point, Following Atticus was not out in hardcover yet, so I got to watch Tom's progress through the gauntlet of book publicity and appearances. When it came time to prepare the paperback edition, Tom went out on a limb and asked HarperCollins to allow me to write the author interview and its introduction. Normally, the publisher has someone in-house write this section, and it's unusual for the author to be named, but Tom pushed. Fortunately, his wonderful editor, Cassie Jones, was game, and they supported me through the process of producing the P.S. section.

Authors can be a snarky and divisive lot, and it's unusual to find the ones who will share their success with writers who have not yet broken through. Tom is one of those authors. He is not only a talented writer, he is a kind and generous person, and I am grateful for his faith in me.

Following Atticus comes out in paperback on August 7, and Tom's blog has all the details of his book tour, if you want to come on out to get a book signed and meet him (and Atticus).

Happy reading!

Creating a Coming of Age Ritual in the New York Times!

Come on over to the New York Times' Motherlode for Ben's experience milking at Robie Farms, complete with video!

Monday, July 9, 2012

Shopping Spree

I have found that there are only so many words - and so many hours - to go around. Unfortunately, the progress I am making on other projects is resulting on a total neglect of this blog. In honor of this admission of my limits, I am posting a piece I originally wrote for my first blog, The Mill Yard. On my way home from an outing with my sons and nieces, I stopped by a local farm for some frozen ducks, and remembered writing about the day I came face to face with a recently deceased deer's head.

I hate shopping. Hate it. From what I hear, I have always hated it. My mom loves to tell people that while I was a perfect child in every other way, I was a terror in stores. Something about the hum of the fluorescent lights, or the muzak or the unbelievable quantity of crap available for purchase makes me want to flee. And I'm not just talking about department stores. I'm talking about grocery stores, shoe stores, toy stores. And this was long before I became a country-bumpkin-farmer-rural-eater-hermit.

My husband, Tim, can tell when I'm about to blow. My eyes start to glaze, I fidget, and by the time I get snippy it's almost too late. The tailspin has begun and it's best to just get out of the store as quickly as possible. I hear from my sister that my niece Mina may have inherited my fear of shopping gene. She has decided it's best to keep Mina out of stores altogether, that it's no longer worth the public humiliation.

Luckily, I live in Lyme. We have a general store and a small artsy gift shop, and that's about it in the retail department. I could travel about twenty-five miles to Lebanon to Route 12A, where someone wisely decided to cluster all of The Ugly. 12-A has all the big stores - Sears, J.C. Penney, Home Depot, Price Chopper, Borders, KMart - but they are isolated in a strip mall purgatory so people don't have to see it unless they go there on purpose. Which I don't. The closest mall is in Concord, I think. Maybe Burlington, VT. I'm not really sure. Both are at least an hour away, so I don't feel any immediate threat to my safety.

I do like the kind of shopping I used to do with my mom in the North End of Boston. We used to walk the neighborhood with our bags and collect one thing here, another thing there. We would wait for the butcher to trim our meats in the thoughtfully placed chairs and talk with the old Italian women until our orders were ready.

I have managed to carve out a similar routine here in Lyme. On Mondays, I drive up to Robie Farms for my milk, cream, cheese, eggs, honey and maple syrup. Betty Sue Robie makes her cinnamon donuts on Monday mornings, so I suppose I could go on another day, but I'm no fool. I get to chat with Lee Robie about how things have been, how it's been tough to keep enough cream on hand because local restaurants buy it all up, and how the chickens lay so few eggs in the winter. His son, Mark Robie, makes their cheese, and sometimes Mark lets me into the cheese cave so I can taste how things are aging in there. He makes a fine Toma, a tasty Gryere and a smooth Cheddar-type farmstand cheese. His cheeses get better the longer he's been at it, but I have to admit that I may have benefited from some of his mistakes because he sells them to me at a discount. Whe I am done shopping at Robie’s Farm Stand, I add up what I owe based on their price list and stick my cash or check in an antique cash register, the kind with the big arm you pull down to make the drawer open. That's my favorite part. If I have forgotten my wallet or am short of cash or can't make change, I just leave a note to that effect in the register and settle up next time.

Most of my meat comes from friends, neighbors, and local farms. I have a freezer full of half a pig, a quarter cow, some bear sausage from an obliging neighbor (it's really gamey but great on pizza with caramelized onions), and a couple of other oddball items I will get around to preparing at some point. My handyman is usually good for some ground venison or a turkey tom once year when he needs to clean out his freezer.

If I need any additional meat, I have a couple of options. Robie Farms sells beef, veal, and the best breakfast sausage I've ever had. Lately, Betty Sue has given Lee permission to sell some of their precious porterhouse steaks, and they are incredible. I go to Recordridge Farm in Lyme for venison, buffalo, boar, beef, chicken, and recently, duck. They also sell maple syrup and eggs. I pick out my meats, weigh them, and figure a total cost. I leave the cash tucked under the scale with a note indicating my name and what I bought.

This sort of shopping is not for the timid. The first visit to a new farm is a intimidating, especially if I have not called ahead. Most farms assume you know the ropes, and it's usually less than obvious where exactly the freezer or eggs are kept. I had two false starts at Recordridge Farm before I actually purchased anything. I had been given specific instructions, but it just looked so wrong. The first time, I went to the right door but assumed the sticky latch was locked, so I went home. The second time, I realized the door actually opened, but when I looked around in what is their tenants' laundry room, I was sure I was in the wrong place. After fact-checking with a friend who buys her meat there, I went back a third time and finally found the freezers around the corner from the laundry room in a dark corner of the basement.

Unfortunately, the first freezer I investigated featured an entire buck’s head. I can only imagine that one of the Recordridge clan had been hunting, intended to save his trophy for mounting, and the freezer was the most obvious place to keep it fresh. It just happened to coincide with my first shopping day. I’m not easily spooked. I even snapped a photo for posterity. I managed to find my ground bison and venison loins in the other freezer. I calculated my bill based on the $3/pound standard, and left my check tucked under the scale.

On the way out of the driveway, I waved to the deer and water buffalo. They graze across the street from the Lyme Elementary playground and often gather along the fence to watch the children play soccer during recess.

My grocery shopping certainly isn't efficient, and sometimes I come face to face with recently killed animals, but I'll take it over strip malls any day of the week.