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Vol. 92, No. 5 May 1999

Math-Abused Students: Are We Prepared to Teach Them?

Greg Fiore

Math anxiety does not appear to have a singlecause. It results from parents and teachersattitudes toward mathematics, poor self-concept, the inability to handle frustration, and em-phasis on mathematics through drill without under-standing (Norwood 1994). Tobias and Weissbrod(1980) defined math anxiety as the panic, helpless-ness, paralysis, and mental disorganization thatarises among some people when they are required tosolve a mathematical problem. Math anxiety hasbeen called an illness that is an emotional as wellas a cognitive dread of mathematics (Hodges 1983;Tobias 1978). Studies have shown that parents whohave math anxiety can pass it on to their childrenand that teachers who have math anxiety can passit on to their students (Lazarus 1974). The ranks ofthe mathematically anxious also include somemathematics teachers, especially at the elementarylevel (Williams 1988). A high percent of elementaryschool teachers say that they avoid mathematicsand have been found to be math anxious.

Most math anxiety has its roots in the teachersand the teaching of mathematics (Williams 1988).A bad experience with a mathematics teacher cancause math anxiety (Tobias 1978). Evidence sug-gests that math anxiety results more from the waythe subject matter is presented than from the sub-ject matter itself (Greenwood 1984).

This article deals with students whose math anx-iety resulted from past verbal or physical abuse, inparticular, abuse by a teacher or parent while doingmathematics. Let us define math abuse as any neg-ative experience related to an individuals doingmathematics. It could be verbal, for example, sucha statement as Youre stupid if you cant solve thisproblem; or it can be physical, for example, strik-ing a student who gives the wrong answer to aproblem. In this article I discuss two examples ofmath abuse, the resulting math anxiety, and how Idealt with both.

TWO STUDENTSTerry was forty years old. She was a student in mydevelopmental-algebra class and was returning to

college to become a teacher. In our first class session,I administered a short assessment test. During thetest, Terry was tense and clearly disturbed.

After class I found Terry sitting in the hallwaycrying. She explained to me that she was afraid ofmathematics and that she performed well in all herclasses except mathematics. She asked me to bepatient with her because she would work very hard.It was clearly important to Terry that I know thisinformation about her.

Lenore, who was in the same class, was forty-three years old and was studying to be a nurse. Shewas quiet in class. To get her to participate, I calledon her for the first time several weeks into thesemester and I asked her a straightforward ques-tion. I often use this technique to boost a studentsconfidence and increase her or his class participation.I was unprepared for her reaction. She panicked,said nothing, and sank into her seat as if she wishedto disappear.

I spoke with her after class. She said that she hadtaken this course once before and failed it. She saidthat each time she was called on in class, she wouldpanic and freeze. She requested that I neither callon her nor ask her any questions in class. Lenoreseemed relieved that we had this conversation.

Lenore had a difficult time learning mathematics.I found myself crafting my lectures just for her. Butafter a few minutes, the results were the same. Shestared blankly at me. She was not letting any infor-mation in. Lenore later described the situation inthis way: what I said was scrambled in her ears,and by the time it reached her brain, it was gibber-ish. Why did Lenore have this reaction? The rest ofthe class responded well. I wanted an explanation.

A WRITING ASSIGNMENTBoth women were bright. They did well in all theirclasses except for mathematics. About a month into

Greg Fiore, gfiore@dundalk.cc.md.us, teaches mathemat-ics at Dundalk Community College in Baltimore, MD21222. His interests are new and motivational applica-tions for the developmental mathematics student andwriting about those applications.

Most mathanxiety hasits roots inthe teachersand teaching ofmathematics

403 Copyright 1999 The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, Inc. www.nctm.org. All rights reserved. This material may not be copied or distributed electronically or in any other format without written permission from NCTM.

THE MATHEMATICS TEACHER404

the semester, I decided to try an idea that I remem-bered reading in the AMATYC Review. The Chalk-board in the spring 1991 issue included RaymondMcGivneys short article called Knowing YourAudience. In it, McGivney suggested asking stu-dents to write a one-page paper called Math andMe, in which students were to describe their math-ematical history. The article suggested that studentsanswer the following questions: What topics inmathematics did you like, and which did you dis-like? Who were the people who played a positiverole in your mathematical life, and why? Who playeda negative role, and why? Describe your good math-ematical experiences and the bad ones. In whatenvironments do you learn the best? What environ-ments hinder your learning?

Terry and Lenore motivated my assigning theMath and Me paper because I was puzzled bytheir reaction to learning mathematics and wantedto know what was happening. I asked students towrite their Math and Me paper at home and handit in during the next class period.

After I collected the papers, I read them thatevening at home. Most students appreciated thefact that I cared enough to ask about them. Some,particularly young males, thought that the exercisewas stupid. Women were more candid and gavemore detailed responses, whereas men gave littledetail. I made positive and empathetic commentson every paper. I learned many things about mystudentshow they learn and what affects theirlearning. However, once again, I was not preparedfor what I was to learn about Terry and Lenore.

Terrys storySchool was a terrible experience for Terry. Her veryworst experience was in the third grade. Terry hadtrouble with long division. Her teacher asked her togo to the chalkboard at precisely 9:15 A.M. to solvea problem. Terry had no clue as to the solution, yetshe was not allowed to return to her seat until shesolved it. She stood there while the rest of the classate lunch and laughed at me. She was still stand-ing there at 3:30 P.M. when school was dismissed.The next day the exercise was repeated. This rou-tine continued on and off for an entire school year.During that time her teacher never gave me oneiota of help. And I was too terrified to ask for it.

Terry said that her mathematics demons werecreated in the third grade. Although she was anexcellent reader, mathematics was her nemesis.After she finished high school, it took her morethan twenty years to build up the nerve to entercollege. And when she did enroll at Dundalk Com-munity College (DCC), she brought all her demonswith her. I clearly recall Terry in my office talkingabout the chalkboard incident, spitting anger asshe spoke of the teacher, as if it had happened yes-

terday. In her Math and Me paper, Terry revealedthat she had been a police officer for ten years. Shesaid that none of her experiences as a police officerfrightened her as much as entering her first college-mathematics class.

Lenores storyLenores paper was eleven pages long. Her worstexperiences with mathematics involved her father.She too was in the third grade and needed helpwith her mathematics homework, so she asked herfather for help. He sat me down and showed mehow to do the problem. But I didnt get it. Heslapped me. He showed me again. I still didnt getit. He slapped me again. He screamed at me, tellingme how stupid I was. I was terrified, crying, andshaking. He ripped the page out of my notebook,crumpled it up, and threw it at me.

The lesion that was created lasted well intoadulthood. Lenore said that when she is in mathe-matics class, she sometimes feels like that little girlagain, shaky and stupid. She feels free to ask ques-tions in other classes, where she does not mindbeing called on or making a mistake. But not inmathematics class. Lenore said that writing theMath and Me paper was a catharsis for her.

WHAT DO I DO WITH ALL THIS?When I finished reading Lenores paper, I knewthat I had entered unfamiliar territory. However,as a result of their candid Math and Me papers, Icould neither ignore Terrys and Lenores mathanxiety nor shuttle them off to another area of thecollege for help. I had to deal with it. How could Iuse what I had just learned to provide a comfort-able learning environment for Terry and Lenore?

To begin, it is important to note that both math-abused students wanted their mathematics instruc-tor to know their histories. They wanted to return toschool and be successful, but they needed someoneelse to help them deal with old luggage that hin-dered their learning. The Math and Me writingassignment served as an opportunity for help. Itallowed students to tell their instructor about them-selves, to put on paper in the privacy and comfort oftheir homes what they might not be able to verbal-ize in school. A knowledge of their mathematicalpasts helped me deal more effectively with them inclass. Among other accommodations, I did not callon Lenore in class and gave Terry the opportunityto test outside the classroom. As a result, theirlearning environments were more comfortable.

Instructors sometimes say that students eitherhave or lack the ability to learn mathematics. Astudent who has had a painfully negative experi-ence in mathematics often actually has the ability;it is simply masked in anxiety. We can effectivelyteach these students by tapping their belief in

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