My Great Grandpa’s Puzzle Closet

“Write down up to three words that best describe your experience with math in school.”  That was the opening prompt for my day of professional development last Friday.  Somehow, I found myself at a table of math lovers, but around the room the immediate reaction was much more visceral.  “I try to block that part of school out of my mind,” was one impromptu response.  Then we stood and grouped ourselves into one of three affinity groups – whether our math experiences had generally been negative, mixed, or positive.  The groups were pretty evenly divided.  Insulted.  Confused.  Frustrating.  Those were just a few words people in the negative group used to describe their math experience in school.  That didn’t reflect my experience at all, and I wasn’t the only member of my group to use words like fun and satisfying.

What in the world happened here?  We went around the circle, and participants did a little self-analysis to determine how we could come to such disparate conclusions.

A few interesting patterns started to surface.  One was that many of the members of our class described having had a generally positive experience “until that one class…”  That’s the class when they started to struggle, and then, to seal the deal, they were basically told directly by a teacher that they weren’t cut out for math.  One participant reported that he was told in no uncertain terms that he was dumb.  The lingering pain associated with these stories was tangible.

The entire time I was listening to these accounts, I was thinking hard about why my experiences had been so different.  Now, by 2nd grade I had been told I wasn’t gifted (I don’t believe gifted programs are typically designed to serve truly gifted students, but that’s a conversation for a different post).  I had received my share of “Needs improvement” on my elementary report cards.  Average is probably the best word to describe my performance.

Despite my ordinariness as a student, I developed a love of math.  But why?  Well, this is hardly a scientific study that can isolate the significant variables in my life that led me to love math.  Yet as I stood in the circle, something jumped out at me that I hadn’t really ever considered.

Some of my earliest memories as a child are of our annual visits to my great grandparents’ house.  We lived in Arizona, and their double-wide trailer in Laguna Beach, CA was a magical place.  Amongst the many wonders of their little home, was my great grandpa’s puzzle closet.  My great grandpa Hind loved puzzles, and he had a wonderful collection of math games and mind teasers.  I spent countless hours trying to match numbers, arrange colors, untie knots, and unlock boxes.  Sometimes great grandpa helped me pick out a puzzle that matched my very basic skill level.  Sometimes I was informed a puzzle was off limits – I was simply not prepared and needed more practice before attempting to solve.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that I’ve always approached math as a game.  A puzzle that has a solution. When I couldn’t solve a problem, it just meant I wasn’t ready yet, or needed more guidance.  I didn’t have any problem when a problem required additional time – it just meant the puzzle was harder to solve.  I never took it personally.

My absolute favorite math activities were often complicated word problems, or even better, logic puzzles.  My 5th grade math teacher, Mr. Christensen, took notice of this interest, and started feeding me lots of logic puzzles.  I gobbled them up.  Then he chose me to represent the school at Math Challenge Day – a district-wide math competition.  I still remember how proud and excited I felt to participate.

Math instruction is a tough nut to crack, and certainly my over-simplified explanation here does not adequately capture the complexity of our math challenges in schools.  Yet I can’t help but think that my great grandpa’s collection of mind teasers, together with the encouragement of a few observant teachers, had an outsize influence on my relationship with math.

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