Posted by: unlikelygrad | May 9, 2012

from failure to fantastic

I am not a failure!

I’ve told these stories before several times at homeschooling conferences. But I think they’re valuable for educators and students to hear, so I’m posting them here as well.

I’ve mentioned before that I pretty well destroyed my GPA during my first two years of college–I left my first school, Famous University, with a 1.9. And only because I took a leave of absence well into my last quarter, when it became clear that my grades were going to sink even further.

My big bugaboos were math and physics. Especially math. This was strange to me because, before college, I’d always gotten straight A’s in math, and I thought I loved math. Then–utter failure! I did repeat the classes I failed (and passed, though not with stellar grades); luckily Famous University counted as passing those required classes you got a grade of ‘D’ in. Then I transferred to State University, where only one year of college calculus was required. That much I had.

For years afterwards I thought of myself as a failure in math. Which was silly, because somehow I’d gotten through the thermo half of P-chem (which is all multi-variable calculus) with a solid A.

When I went back to school to do post-bac study, I knew I should take the second half of P-chem, quantum chemistry. But I was petrified: it was called chemistry, but it was really half-math and half-physics! I was doomed! I was going to fail! I would never get the letter of recommendation I needed from the prof!

But you know, it wasn’t as bad as I feared. Yes, I had to review the math (it had been 15 years since I did calculus on that level) but it came to me quickly and easily and I found the proofs to be a piece of cake. I not only ended up passing that class: I got an A+.

Then I got to grad school and I became known, among other things, as The Person Who Is Really Good At Math.

What had happened? As I said, I hadn’t studied calculus for fifteen years so it wasn’t that I had re-learned the material. I pondered long and hard and came to two conclusions.

The first was that I had matured. Sometimes your brain isn’t ready to process material it learns until it makes more connections–and this sort of maturity doesn’t happen at the same age in everyone. I’d learned this the hard way during those intervening years as I was homeschooled my children.

See, when Al was 18 months old, he started pointing to words and asking, “What’s dis?” By age 2 was doing that for every word he saw so I figured I ought to teach him to read. By age 3 he was reading on a second-grade level. I was very proud of myself and thought that I was a great teacher.

When Nate was 2 he also loved books and I thought I would teach him to read. But it just didn’t work. No problem, I thought, he’s young yet. So I tried again when he hit three. And again at four. And again at five. No dice. By the time he hit six he could pick out a few sight words but that was it. And nothing I could do would change that. I started to panic–what kind of homeschool mom was I if I was completely unable to teach my child to read?

And then, a month before he was seven…

At the time, I was reading the two older boys the Lord of the Rings trilogy. (This was before the movies came out, but they were hooked anyway.) They always begged me to read more chapters but Tolkein’s chapters are looooong and after reading the second chapter my throat had about had it.

One day I said, for what seemed like the 294th time, “That is it! No more until tomorrow!” And I left the room to get the baby ready for bed. When I came back to turn off the light–I always let Al read a bit after our bedtime story–I found Nate with his nose buried in The Two Towers. “Don’t turn off the light yet!” he begged.

“Wait, can you read that?”

“Uh huh!” he said, and proceeded to read a section aloud. He messed up some of the names and a few of the bigger words, but he clearly could understand the gist of the story. In other words, somehow he’d gone from reading on a barely first-grade level to reading Tolkein in less than a month.

During the previous two years I had tried teaching him reading both by phonics (several programs) and sight reading but nothing had worked. But the information got into his brain, and when he was mature enough to make the connections, all of a sudden he could read.

And I really think that was part of why I could do multivariable calculus when I took Thermo, which was a couple of years after I failed multivariable calculus at Famous University. It got into my brain when I’d taken the original math class but my brain wasn’t ready to make the connections yet. (Note that I started college early, so I was taking the math class at age 18 when all of my peers were 20.)

And I really think there’s another reason I did so well when I got into quantum chemistry: I knew how to do proofs. As I said, it had been ~15 years since I’d done any sort of calculus proofs at all. But since then I’d done zillions of proofs–as a tutor. Most of my math clients were either in the algebra II/trig/pre-calculus slot, and for two of them I was the primary teacher of algebra II.

So I’d done hundreds of proofs in the previous three years. They weren’t calculus proofs, but then some of the tricks of how to set up a proof, how to figure out your initial path, etc. are very much the same from one sort of math to another. In other words: I’d gotten so good at doing the basics that I had a solid foundation for more advanced stuff.

Years ago I’d thought I’d have to work through several college calculus books, take a few classes, etc. to get to the point where I was good at math. I thought I’d failed because I was stupid and lazy. But I wasn’t: I just needed time to mature and practice in the basics.

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