Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Vi Hart

My third grade math teacher ruined math for me and any type of self confidence I could have ever had in the subject.  Yes, that sounds like an overly exaggerated statement but I have come to believe that this is entirely true and completely appropriate given the way she chose to teach.   Ms. G., we will call her, was a notoriously tough teacher.  I knew the year would be hard the first day when I walked into the classroom and saw two huge tanks full of frogs and toads.  (If you refer back to my post about Dr. Jill Tarter, you will remember that I have a crippling fear of these creatures that dates back to my early childhood.)  

My education up to this point was sort of bumpy.  My first grade teacher chose to instruct us on the finer points of "I Love Lucy" and "Lost in Space" episodes instead of reading.  By the end of that year I had a million Lucy trading cards (definitely had the one to the left), earned myself about a dozen full size candy bars (the ultimate award for any six year old), and a spot in second grade remedial reading with the rest of my classmates.  Luckily, I had brilliant reading teachers that were able to get me up to speed with the rest of my grade level within one year.  While the stigma of this wasn't exactly completely grasped by me at the time, I knew that I was a kid who had to work a little harder.  

Surprisingly, I survived the amphibian science project, and even collected crickets to feed the toads.  (Of course I always kept a great distance whenever anyone was holding one.)  What I was unable to deal with was the part of third grade that I couldn't escape, the part that lasted the entire year...timed tests.  (example to the right--->)

Ms. G was seriously into her timed tests and gave one everyday.  We were given 100 problems and had to solve as many of them as possible in 60 seconds.  If we didn't correctly complete a certain number of problems, we had to stay 15 minutes after school for extra help.  I had to stay after everyday and no matter how much extra help I had, I still couldn't complete the tests.  Ms. G was not very kind to those of us who weren't getting it.  

When I think back on it, I'm completely amazed by her tactics and think of them to be quite strange.   She always had a teacher's pet.  This was always a girl, and typically the "smartest" girl in class.  When my sister had her, two years later, she was the pet.  I clearly was not.  In fact, I think she seriously didn't like me.  We had an altercation.  I was pretty fed up by the 15 minute detention everyday thing and so was my mom.  One day I was extra late getting home and my mom asked me why.  I told her Ms. G didn't let us leave until 3:05.  It was against policy for any student to be kept past 3:00.  My mom wrote Ms. G a letter stating her frustrations. (Think Marmee from Little Women, without the taking me out of school part)  I confidently handed it to her the next day when I got to school.  She read it and immediately, in front of the entire class and in a really patronizing voice said, "Julia, sweetie, you were dismissed at 3:00."  She was so lying!  I knew it and the rest of the kids in the class who had to stay knew it too.  So I stood up and said "No, you let us leave at 3:05."  She just stared at me and went back to teaching.  

To this day I hate being called "Sweetie".  I also struggle with Math.  Now that I look back on it, my main problem was the anxiety caused by the timing of the tests.  When my mom would have me practice at home without being timed, I could answer all the problems.  As soon as I was back in class and the timer ticked, I fell apart.  I wasn't even the worst student in the class and I was extremely lucky to have family support.  I just couldn't feel confident in the subject.  

In 6th grade, I had another crazy tough Math teacher, we will call him Mr. G.  I liked him but learned nothing.  I was too intimidated by the insane outbursts he had of throwing chalk at the wall and erasers at the blackboard when we failed to answer questions properly.  He did work hard with other kids who wanted extra help, I just looked for it elsewhere. My dad, basically a math genius, tried to tutor me. That failed miserably because he kept trying to show me all this extra stuff and shortcuts when I couldn't grasp the basics.  One of my friends, who was far superior than me in math, was utterly incredulous and completely annoyed when I argued that the decimal point didn't matter when trying to solve problems.  Yes, it was that bad.  ;)

My 7th grade math teacher, a fossil left over from my dad's years in the Jamestown School system, was ultra terrible.  He was overly tanned and wore a gold chain with short sleeved button up tees that he left open at the top exposing his graying chest hair.  Had Jersey Shore existed back then, we may have found him to be a little bit more entertaining.  I hated him after he told me a problem that I missed on an exam was easy enough for a dog to answer.  He always loved telling us that girls were just incapable of handling mathematics.  I'm pretty sure he was hungover a lot as well.  

It wasn't until my high school years that I was able to overcome some of the insecurities surrounding my math abilities.  The teacher that saved me was Mr. Salvaggio.  He was so patient with me and my other classmates.  As long as he knew I was really trying, which in his class at least I was, he allowed me to take the time I needed in order to really understand.  He became a great friend and I still see him occasionally when I go home.  Some friends and I even went to his wedding.  

While Salvag was great and helped me more than pass my later math classes, it was too late.  I was permanently convinced that I would never excel in the subject.  I don't think it was necessarily each individual teacher that couldn't get through to me, but the way in which the subject was taught in general.  Of course I learned some things along the way, just not enough to build any type of solid foundation.  I waited until my last semester of college before getting the Math GenEd out of the way and I just barely passed.  The only thing standing in the way of taking the GRE is my self doubt in my math abilities.  I am trying to get my mind beyond it, but I still have a lot of the same insecurities that have plagued me all of my educational life.  

This is where Vi Hart is helping in a big way.   Her website has become a site that I visit daily in hopes of gaining an interest and a "can do" attitude about math.  Her outlook is fascinating.  

She is 22 years old and refers to herself as a Mathemusician.  She has been named one of Stoney Brook University's researchers of the month for her work in music, specifically the Harry Potter septet she wrote.  If I don't know anything about math, I know less about composing music.  Of the piece, she says that it took her about 14 months and that it was just an idea she had one day, not actually thinking she would make it a reality.  She did complete it and that is what is so encouraging about her.  She clearly has the ability to make things happen and follow through with her ideas, a trait lacking in so many of us.  

Math is something she enjoys on a recreational level.  She is completely irritated with the way it is taught in this country.  Listen to the first few moments of this video and you can instantly pick up on her exasperation over how boring the subject is handled in our classrooms...Doodling elephants.  She has made a series of these videos, using doodling as a way of explaining mathematic principles.  I like how fast she talks too.  It reminds me of the micro machines guy from those old 90's commercials.  :)

I have always wondered if Math were explained to me in a different way, would I get it?  When I was in Salvaggio's class I seemed to learn the concepts more than any other time in my life, so I don't necessarily think it's material that I would never be able to handle.  

I have always been more visual, and Vi's artistic interpretations of mathematical principles are so beautiful and unique.  A lot easier for me to connect with than numbers and language that might as well be foreign to me.  I am also a history nerd and think that if I understood more of the story behind the subject, my mind could better identify with the information.  It was ruined for me long ago, however, so it's going to take a lot of self motivation at this point for me to build my confidence.  Vi's website is helping with that. 

She doesn't just doodle!  She also makes really cool bead sculptures with instructions and explanations of the math she used to create them.  I like how she encourages people to attempt them and email her photos.   She is working to make her passion an entire community and by doing so teaching those who want to learn.  I haven't attempted anything yet but I'm determined to try something.  Hart also uses fruits, vegetables, and balloons in her projects.  Several of her reports have been published and presented at different math conferences.  She has even made her own paper instruments and played them while on fire.  It's all so interesting and makes me wonder how one person can be so smart and artistic.  

We all learn differently and I feel that is a strength that is being suffocated in our current system.  If we aren't able to follow the learning methods that are considered "the norm" we will fall by the wayside or be left to feel that we just can't do it.  If a subject like math can be taught to students who learn in different ways by new methods, shouldn't those options be at least examined?  We are only doing future damage to our country's abilities by not providing the most up to date techniques for learning. 

When asked about her future plans, it seems that Vi is interested in doing something musically.  This surely would be really cool but I hope she keeps up her math work as well.  There seems to be a movement within the educational community that has started the discussion about how math could be taught differently.  With a 25th world ranking, our students seem to be crying out for a change in tactics.  Paul Lockhart wrote an indepth essay about his frustrations with the current system that you can read/skim through here.  

Hopefully, those who find joy in math like Vi will keep up its recreational appeal.  I'm not sure  gold chains math teacher is still alive but I'd like to pass along Hart's website to him and make some type of sassy comment about girls and math.  Although, it's probably more productive for me to just write about her here.  We really don't hear much about math in a fun creative way.  I'm glad Vi's unique perspective is cutting through the negative stigma and gaining some type of following.  


  1. I am in the same math boat as you.

    The materials that Maria Montessori developed to teach math will blow your mind! A couple of teachers at my school have sat down with us assistants and given us the lessons they give to the children and I seriously almost cry every time. If somebody had shown me simple math using beads and blocks and things when I was four, I seriously believe I wouldn't feel like I couldn't balance a checkbook at 27.

    You should look into it! The lessons are incredible!

  2. I hate math.
    I liked it until 6th grade when our teacher Mr. B just handed us a math workbook and said on these dates have this many pages done. I would wait until the week before and cram it all in at once. I had to teach myself 3 months of math in one weekend.
    THen my 8th grade math teach Mr. D was a BITCH! He would talk about wrestling instead of math. AND he lost our projects and papers.
    Mr. Scholl was the greatest. He was my senior & junior year math teacher and he was the only one who would take time to explain.

    I loved this post.