December 7, 2008
Let me start with self-buttressing before I move on to shame, of which there is plenty.
It started well, my life, with respect to math. There were no problems. To the contrary, I spent much of my elementary school time off on my own during math sessions because they had run out of new concepts to teach me and figured I’d do better with my own textbook, meant for a few grades beyond my own, in a corner, teaching myself.
So this part was fine. In seventh grade, I easily tested into early algebra. I don’t recall too much from my first year of algebra–though now I spend time trying to remember because it seems like a critical fulcrum of time. I know we memorized the Quadratic equation and I seem to remember something with trinomials.
It wasn’t until I got to high school that I realized something had gone horribly, horribly wrong. Geometry was tolerable but when I got to second-year algebra I was suddenly and desperately hopeless. I suppose my definition of “hopeless” is maybe a touch hyperbolic: I’m sure I got Bs or something. But for someone as socially inept as I, the notion of anything academic to which I put effort not panning out was confounding. And I knew that something was wrong mathematically from which I could not easily recover.
I left high school early for college–something entirely beyond the scope of this story–and concentrated on subjects as far removed from math as possible. I did take college-level algebra (it was required). I stabbed through it in an epic series of trial-and-error problem solving and came out with a B. Traumatized and relieved, I never again graced the halls of the math department with my presence.
And so the years passed and college was done and I had a career and pets and a husband. My math disability didn’t seem to color my success. And yet the guilt–the shame–of being an otherwise well-educated adult barely able to claim the skills of basic algebra, wore me down.
So I decided to do something about it. One of my goals for 2008 was to learn some darned math, already.
Before I could heal the wounds, I had to figure out where I had suffered the injury. Math seemed especially hard when it involved factoring or simplifying. The diagnosis: bad. The tumor had started growing way back in basic, basic algebra. I’d have to start all over again.
The remedy would be especially tedious. To weed out the real problem, I’d have to wade through seas of stuff I already knew, fishing for the elusive bits I’d missed the first time.
I hit my local bookstores. Study aids abounded, but finding books that offered a sense of a full “course” was harder. Of the perhaps half dozen books I purchased pursuant to elementary algebra, only a few are worth mentioning.
Algebra Demystified: A Self-Teaching Guide by Rhonda Huettenmueller: This is the go-to book if you need to look at numbers or find practice problems. It’s not intuitive and it’s not explanatory. It’s numbers. This may sound horrifying, but it’s very useful to use when you’re looking for practice on specific topics. This is not to say this isn’t a standalone course: it was actually the first book I worked through, and it does nominally teach the concepts. It does so, however, in a rote and arithmetic-heavy style. Notably you come out the other end not feeling a mastery of the subject. | |
Maran Illustrated Effortless Algebra: Every few years, math people like to shake things up and come up with the New, New NEWER way of teaching math. This is one of those sort of things. Photo- and graph-heavy, on glossy paper, with relative simplicity of presentation, this book is still not the godsend it would like to be. In conjunction with other books, it can be a useful tool. This book also restricts itself to first-year algebra, where other books delved into second-year topics. | |
Complete Idiot’s Guide to Algebra by W. Michael Kelley: If I can credit one thing with my ultimate math success, it is probably this book–and by extension Mr. Kelley. He has my number. Concepts are explained with humor and, most importantly for people who learn like me, words. Suddenly I got it. Using this book as my core reference, I used the others I had to find back-up practice problems. Note that this book has essentially zero practice problems in it. It is the one bad thing I’d say about it. | |
Algebra I Video Course, The Teaching Company, taught by Monica Neagoy: If I had never taken algebra, ever, this DVD course would likely have been thorough and enlightening. Neagoy is a passionate and slightly unusual teacher, who uses a lot of geometric teaching aids and peppers her lessons with historical insight. However, a lot of time is spent on basic foundational concepts and specific instruction on specific models of graphing calculators (and the whole thing feels a little dated overall). |
I studied hard and consistently the algebraic curriculum I had built for myself. But I knew I wanted a bigger challenge, and to put my new skills to a sterner test. Happily my culmination of learning algebra and intermediate algebra coincided with the beginning of this summer. My good friend Mike was going to attend Portland State University’s summer term to take some pre-requisites for an electrical engineering degree. One of those pre-requisites? Calculus! What a perfect test of my new math reality.
I took first term calculus this summer at PSU, a somewhat expensive ($800 all told, including the $206, yes, two-hundred-and-six-dollar, textbook) but ultimately redeeming experience that left me with a lot of studying and some swearing. Being back in my alma mater after eight years was jarring (I am old). Testing was stressful. But in the end: confidence, math, and an A in calculus.
I would be thrilled if my story makes other people realize that their math woes are not their fault, and that it is–if you have the drive–fixable.
Thank you Lyza for delineating your math success story with details. I was so envious of your success in calculus (the place I fell done in college – I got such a scrape by grade that I ran away from math to an arts degree). I had looked for books and courses to make up my deficit but your post makes me feel it might really be possible! Congratulations.
Glad to hear the Complete Idiot’s Guide to Algebra worked out so well for you! Most of my writing occurs late at night in a basement I should spend more time cleaning, so it’s always great to hear that the book breaks through those humble (and sloppy) beginnings to help others. I agree that more practice is always better, so I just released The Humongous Book of Calculus Problems, which is 1,000 practice problems with really really really detailed solutions. Browse through one next time you’re in a Borders and let me know if it would have served you well (now that it’s too late!)
What I meant to say was Humongous Book of Algebra Problems (though there is a Calculus version out as well). This proves beyond a shadow of a doubt I should not post things late at night. My brain barely works during the day.
what a waste shame is! the problem was rotten teachers, not you.
[...] Steinbeck, local history, this year’s Booker- and Pulitzer-winners. In the interstices I studied math. I had signed up for calculus at PSU’s summer session and needed to be [...]
Yeah, Lyza is modest, I always considered myself to be one of those people who have both classically male and stereotypically female mental strengths. Unlike many men, I score well on verbal proficiency tests, in fact better than on math tests. Still, I never felt that my math was weak by any means. That is until we took that Calc class last summer. To be fair, I hadn’t cracked a textbook in ten years, but still, it took Lyza’s help and the aforementioned “Algebra for Complete Idiot’s” for me to limp through that class with a ‘B’. I won’t embarrass Lyza, suffice to say, she didn’t get a B. Holy cow! I just realized the book’s author commented on here. Well, honestly it’s a great book for reviewing Algebra that you took years ago, or maybe for learning it for the first time, although that’s speculation. I had taken Algebra I and II in high school and Math 111 and 112 in college, before, but as to retention…that’s another story.