Why I’m Learning Spanish and Not Math

Remember how excited I was about the Khan Academy math program?  Even though I’d always hated math, their practice tests full of hints made it fun for me to learn.  Yes, fun!  I said that about math!

Brimming with enthusiasm, I vowed right in these here pages to keep doing math until I hit a wall.

Can I be honest?  After that optimistic proclamation, I only did one more hour or so of math practice tests.  And then I stopped.

Here’s what’s interesting: I wasn’t bored of the practice tests. They were kind of fun.  But we live in a world in which fun is very easy to come by.  If all I wanted was to have fun, I’d spend the rest of my life binge-watching Girls or learn how to play Call of Duty or do real-life fun stuff like snorkel or surf or bungee jump.

The thing is, for me, but also I suspect for many people, fun is not enough. I say this because a lot of educational programs sell themselves on the premise that they’re fun and accessible and that therefore, kids will use them.  For me, that wasn’t enough to get me through a whole course, nor was the vague notion that I really ought to know the subject.

New statistics on MOOCs seem to bear this out.  Remember last year, when a flurry of excitement about MOOCs suggested that free online classes were going to alter the educational landscape?  They didn’t.  New studies show that something like 4% of people who start a MOOC actually finish it.  There is now much speculation about why this might be, but my experience with Khan Academy suggests one possible answer.

If you are really going to learn something, it has to matter to you.  This may seem obvious; it wasn’t obvious to me.  I enjoyed Khan Academy’s math exercises, but in the end, I had the same problem with them that I had with the math classes I hated so much in high school: math just doesn’t matter to me.  (Sorry, math people.  I know that’s an appalling statement. But here I sit, happy as a clam, a testimony to ignorance.)

The thing is, learning is a struggle.  If I’m learning something that I don’t yet understand, when I hit that point of not-understanding, it’s unsettling—I have a sense of momentary blankness and inner helpless scrambling.  Also, I feel stupid.   The first thought in my mind is often God, I’m an idiot. And then I go into a shame spiral.  For me, learning involves being willing to entertain that sensation of stupidity.  Of course, the flip side is when I wrestle my way through that stupidity and come out on the other side knowing something new.  That’s gratifying.

But it takes willpower, confidence and drive to get through that struggle.  Here, I think of some of my former students, the ones who consistently did not turn in work.   Often these students were highly intelligent.  I always thought that what they lacked was the confidence to work through that struggle, and this may have been the case.  But at my advanced age, with a life of ups and downs, I actually do have a fair bit of confidence.  And it wasn’t enough to learn math. Even with a fun program, I needed a reason to care.  I didn’t have that.

Thinking of my experience with these math practice tests, I shift my understanding of those failing students. All the incentives we dangled, the grades, the thought of going to college…if for whatever complex reason none of those were ideas in which my failing students could invest personally, what was left to make that struggle matter to them personally and authentically?  What was going to be enough to get them to endure feeling stupid, even temporarily?

Which brings me to learning Spanish.  My new year’s resolution is to learn Spanish.  I am saying this publicly at every possible opportunity so that I can hold myself accountable, which is part of why I’m posting it here.  I took a little Spanish in college, which means I know about as much Spanish as I know math, in other words, not much.  But here’s the difference: learning Spanish matters to me.  For real.  When I was teaching, the fact that I spoke very little Spanish was a huge problem for me because I could not communicate with many of my students’ parents.  Speaking through a translator is just not the same.  And when I was teaching full-time, working on my feet all day, I was just too dog-tired to learn a new language.  But I’m on sabbatical; I’m rested.  I also want to learn Spanish because it’s inextricably intertwined in L.A.’s culture and history and because it’s a beautiful language. (I know, you think math is beautiful.  Not to me.  Sorry.  Eye of the beholder, etc.)

So I’ve found an online program, Duolingo, that so far seems fun in the same way as Khan Academy’s practice programs.  Kicking it up a notch, my friend Merle is also on Duolingo, where I am engaging my competitive side by racking up 580 XP’s while she has only accumulated a measly, pathetic 77 XP’s.  What are XP’s?  Who cares? I have like six times as many as Merle!  At the recommendation of several friends, I’m also watching a telenovela, La Reina del Sur, some of the most gripping TV I’ve ever watched.  Our heroine turns from good to badass in under 45 minutes, jumping from rooftop to rooftop clutching a briefcase full of cocaine, wearing only a shirt, underpants and five-inch heels, moments after shooting a rapist in the face and being shot at the whole way by a drug dealer whose associates just shot and then blew up her boyfriend.  I’m sorry, mathletes, whatever “fun” you’ve got, La Reina kicks it to the curb.

Merle and I are also going to something called a Spanish meetup, which frightens me because again, I know I will feel stupid since many of the people there will be fluent.  But I’m willing to do it because learning Spanish matters to me personally.  Otherwise, I’d give in to my overwhelming, cowardly urge to stay home.

Will the fact that Spanish matters to me be enough to overcome the struggle, the feeling of being stupid and all of the other temptations in my life?  Too early to tell.

But for right now, as a teacher, I’m wondering.  How can we make learning matter personally to our students?  How can we make the struggle worthwhile?


7 thoughts on “Why I’m Learning Spanish and Not Math”

  1. I think you answered it yourself, competition. When kids are surrounded by competitive kids, they compete. They’ll compete in whatever their friends like–fashion, sports, getting kicked out of class–whatever makes them more cool. But if the other kids are competing for grades, they will too. They want those XP’s.

    1. Great article. Competition is one good way to motivate some students. The problem is, if a student doesn’t think they have a chance of winning, they don’t bother trying. They would rather do nothing than try and “fail”, since anything but winning is seen as failure to them. What do you do then? How do you motivate the students that never earn any XP’s?

  2. La Reina sounds pretty bad ass for sure! I think you made the right choice 😀 I think dropmimi hit a pretty big reason why you’re enjoying it. I also think that you have a friend to do it with you, aside from the competition, you’re part of a team with a common goal.

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