Middle School Math

One of my jobs right now, aside from authoring which is–at present–unpaid, is tutoring K-12 students to take standardized tests. It’s true: there’s viable paying work teaching the one thing I was REALLY good at in school, test taking. Most of the tests I’m teaching, however, were not around when I was a student. I can still ace them, because frankly standardized testing does not require you to actually know very much about the topic at hand, only the psychology of people who write test questions. But in a spirit of solidarity with my students and good faith to whatever education we are trying to give them, I’ve gone back and learned some stuff. Here are some observations.

Middle school math, amirite? I was a solid math student until I stopped doing homework around the 6th grade. So while it should not have been a surprise that my adult grasp on basic arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and statistics was cold-fish-weak, I was still taken aback somewhat. A lot of it was familiar, all that stuff about Pi and FOIL etc. Unlike when I was in middle school, though, now I can learn just about anything on Youtube. What it an unexpected delight, to watch this dance of numbers come together! I had somehow never been cued in on the fact that algebra and geometry are connected, and that all those exponent squares and cubes were actual squares and cubes. Never before had the distributive, the commutative properties meant anything except words assigned, seemingly at random, to obscure functions that meant nothing. HOW WRONG WE CAN BE IN THIS LIFE.

Anyhoo, I’m happy to be learning it.

Seriously, everyone should read The Elements of Style. I feel like primary school English teachers are afraid to teach grammar and punctuation because it risks losing student attention. Let Strunk and White explain these things. They’ve been the best at it for years.

Words are magic. Most of these private and parochial school entrance tests have some sort of vocabulary section, where the student is tasked with conjuring the definition of a difficult word with no context. This is either the easiest or the hardest section. In flailing around to find a way to prepare my charges, I’ve developed a rant. Ahem:

Unlike math, science, or history, we learn our language as babies. We accrue words in our brain banks by the hundreds, sometimes knowing exactly what they mean, but most of the time only with an oblique sense of implication. It is tempting for an 8th grader, when facing a word like amorphous or lethargic, to throw up their hands and guess, not having the words to precisely define their choices. This is where it gets fun, for me. because I get to coach intuition and detective work.

Of course, it’s a well-known strategy to break words down into their component morphemes-sorting out the suffixes that indicate parts of speech and the prefixes that indicate positive or negative connotations, whittling down to roots from Greek or Latin that are detectable in other, more familiar words. Amorphous is a cousin of metamorphosis, lethargic relating to the mythological waters of the Lethe. This in itself amazes me: how we can unpack a whole secret history of a word just by breaking it up a little bit.

But even more mystical than such time traveling linguistics is the plumbing of subconscious memory to remember where one might have heard a word before. Where have I heard lethargic? The vet? In a Garfield cartoon? Hmmm. Interesting. How about statute? Cop shows. Always cop shows. What conclusions can we draw from that?

The best part is watching a kid make a perfectly correct educated guess based on the wild thread of their subconscious detective work. Because words are magic, and so ar they.


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