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Friday, March 16, 2007

When is a math issue really a reading issue?

It was one of those Jungian synchronicities. My department head returned this morning from yesterday’s all-day conference, and he told us about a talk that ascribed many students’ difficulties with math questions (and questions in other disciplines) to difficulties in reading. That sounded plausible to me, at least in the case of average to below-average math students.

A few minutes later I read Jill Walker’s new post in her blog, reporting on her students’ difficulties with close reading.
As Miller said in Repo Man:
A lot o’ people don't realize what’s really going on. They view life as a bunch o’ unconnected incidents ’n things. They don’t realize that there’s this, like, lattice o’ coincidence that lays on top o’ everything. Give you an example; show you what I mean: suppose you’re thinkin’ about a plate o’ shrimp. Suddenly someone’ll say, like, plate, or shrimp, or plate o' shrimp out of the blue, no explanation.
I always seem to remember the next line as, “You think it’s a coincidence, but it’s not”; however, that turns out not to be the next line. Anyway, I think I’ve quoted it before. If so, it’s purely a coincidence.

Anyway, the question arises whether we should really be teaching reading skills as a component of a high-school math class. Walker’s post is on a slightly different topic, dealing with close reading rather than simple reading, and with college students rather than high-school students. But still it’s clearly related. She links to another professor, who calls herself Dr Crazy, so off I went to check out Dr Crazy, despite her website’s irksome horizontal stripes, which make reading a chore rather than a pleasure. And sure enough there’s a direct connection with high-school math (and physics):
Tonight, another reader, who teaches physics, sent me an email asking me to talk more about it because apparently these kids today can’t do story problems. And then today, in handing back papers in my upper-level class, it struck me that I need to do more in class to demonstrate how to do close reading in a more explicit way.

...

Close reading is not reaction. I don’t particularly care how you “feel” about a text. Nor does anybody else. Nor do I care that it reminds me of when your grandmother had alzheimers. That has nothing to do with what is in the actual text. Nor do I care what you “got from it.” I care about what is there. (This, incidentally, is why I think Dr. Pion’s students may be failing to comprehend the story problems — because they’re used to reacting and not to reading.)

The problem, as far as I can tell, is one of focus. My students don’t necessarily focus intently on what they read. They don’t necessarily read with pen in hand. Or if the pen is in hand, it’s just underlining cool stuff, and not really entering into a conversation with the texts that they read. When I was an undergraduate, I was a talented writer, but I was also the sort of reader who read for “cool passages.” Now, of course I still read for “cool passages,” but now I actually ask myself why they are illuminating and cool. THIS is what missing from the NCLB testing world. There is no need to focus because there is no need for a why. You don’t need to engage deeply because there is no evaluation of deep engagement. And with no evaluation comes no reward.
Anyway, this is just a brief excerpt. The post goes on — and appropriately so — at considerable length. Do read the whole thing. It’s definitely worth thinking about, and possibly implementing. Maybe it will help us not only narrow the achievement gap in mathematics but also help all students do better with story problems.

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