X to the Power of Huh? Or, How Math Anxiety Almost Ruined My Life

Photo courtesy of woodleywonderworks

I’m betting that many of you dear readers will identify with today’s guest post from Lisa Tabachnick Hotta. Math anxiety may still dog some of us, but it doesn’t have to ruin our lives. Read my guest post on her blog here.

“Miss Tabachnick,” exclaimed my grade 8 math teacher.  “Please come up to the board and demonstrate how you obtained the answer to that equation; I’m sure the entire class will benefit from your explanation.”

Sweat trickled its way from my brow to my toes. Show the class? Now? At the chalk board? Somehow I must’ve squeaked out the answer because I did graduate – from grade 8, then from high school and ultimately obtained two university degrees. (My majors, of course, had absolutely nothing to do with math!)

Anxiety in all its sweaty glory – shaky hands, racing pulse, nausea – is pretty much the story of my life when it comes to math. Of course I’m rarely at a chalk (or smart) board deciphering mathematical problems these days as a writer, community volunteer and parent. But, you will often find me deep in “grownup” math conundrums.  Here are but a few examples:

• Recently I was out for dinner with the girls and we were splitting the check. “Anne, you’re the accountant, you can figure out what we all owe,” I half-joked to one member of our group. She wasn’t amused. (Maybe it’s like the doctor who’s always getting asked for health tips at parties?) Her reluctance to assist me meant having to figure out not only what my drink, dinner and dessert cost but also my portion of the tax and tip – not at all easy for someone who’s math challenged!
• My son who is (miraculously) gifted in math, asked me fairly simple questions in the car as a kind of numbers game: What’s 2 + 2, What’s 4 + 4, What’s 8 + 8, What’s 16 + 16, etc. Now, the first few questions? No problemo. But, as the numbers and queries got larger, I had to think harder to come up with the answers and, yes, that in turn increased my anxiety level.
• Just today my kids and I were at a medical appointment. The administrator explained that receiving a response from the government to our query could take up to 30 weeks. I laughed along with the other adults who joked about government inefficiencies but, somewhere in my mind, I was still trying to figure out how many months equalled 30 weeks.

All joking aside, being mathematically challenged has caused me enormous stress. From hiring tutors throughout middle and high school, to being told (by that same grade 8 math teacher) that I’d never amount to anything because my math skills were so poor, to ensuring that I am charging clients appropriate rates on invoices – I’ll be forever haunted by issues around math.

So, how do I cope as a math-phobic adult? Luckily, I’ve learned to lean on my strengths – writing, communications and art. I also lean on calculators! Have you heard the expression, “fake it ‘til you make it”? I’ve also employed that strategy more than once. And, I’ve found that humor works well – I’ll just admit outright that math isn’t my forte and, while I’d be happy to volunteer as project manager or group leader, appointing me treasurer really isn’t the best idea.

Lisa Tabachnick Hotta is a professional writer, editor, social media expert and researcher who lives just north of Toronto, Ontario. Lisa specializes on topics related to health, mental health, family, the arts and society. Check out her blog: KidsAndMentalHealth.com.

What are your childhood memories of math anxiety? How does math anxiety influence your life now? How have you learned to get around it?

This Forever 21 shirt is no longer available. (Thank goodness!)

Earlier this year, Forever 21 and J.C. Penny had problems with moms and teen girls, when they retailed their own versions of math-as-gender-warfare–t-shirts that read: Allergic to Algebra and I’m Too Pretty for Homework, So My Brother Does It for Me.  Within days, the shirts disappeared from the shelves and their websites.

I wrote a guest blog post about this for Dara Chadwick’s wonderful blog You’d Be So Pretty If, which is devoted to encouraging positive body image in girls.

I was a great high school student. I did well in all of my classes (Okay, so I did fail band that one grading period because I didn’t turn in my practice sheets.). I was a responsible and eager student. But there was one subject that was a challenge for me: French.

I tried. I really did. But for whatever reason, the most romantic of all of the romance languages did not come easy. I had good teachers. I studied. I paid attention in class.  But the best I could do was a low B — and that was with a lot of hard work.

Still, I didn’t have a t-shirt that read, “French Phobic.” I’ve never heard of a Barbie doll that says, “French is Hard!”

So what’s the deal with math?

Math is hard. But so is writing, reading, playing an instrument, painting, soccer, woodshop and, yes, French. In fact, if teachers and coaches are doing their jobs, students will feel challenged — which can bring up a variety of other feelings, from frustration to enthusiasm.

You’d Be So Pretty If… by Dara Chadwick.

Read the rest here, and be sure to comment.  Also, check our Dara’s wonderful book You’d Be So Pretty If…  Anyone who knows a teenage girl should!

So what do you think about these t-shirts?  Are they all in fun or bad for girls?  Why does math get such a bad rap?  Share your ideas in the comments section.

When Journalists Get the Math Wrong

Photo courtesy of KungPaoCajun

This has been a very weird four days.

First, I found out that USA Weekend— the weekly newspaper supplement that appears in more than 800 newspapers in the U.S. and is read by 4.7 million people each week — published a cool, little story about Math for Grownups this weekend.  “Man,” I thought. “This is great!”

Then I read the first and only (at the time) comment:

In “Benefits vs. Raise” I am surprised you made the common mistake of thinking you will make less money if you get a raise. If you move to a higher tax bracket it is only the incremental money that is taxed at the higher rate. You should print a correction.

See explanation here

Long story short: my explanation in Math for Grownups is correct.  Sadly, for Gregory Connolly, the reporter who wrote this otherwise really nice story, some of the information in the article was not.  In a few days the geeky little corner of the blogosphere that pays attention to these things went nuts.  I’ve gotten emails, nasty tweets and more — even after I posted what I think is a very level-headed response to the original comment, letting readers know that the error was the reporter’s. And even after USA Weekend posted an excerpt from my book that explains (correctly) how math and the tax system work in this situation.*

Today, more people took notice, with a blog post on Huffington Post (USA Today Fails Math for Grownups), Daily Kos (According to USA Today’s Logic, You Should Ask Your Boss for a Pay Cut) and The Columbia Journalism Review (A More than Marginally Embarrassing Mistake).

Hoo-wee!  When math, taxes and mistaken reporting collide, sparks fly!

I’m still trying to figure out if this is a good thing for me or a bad thing. (Is any publicity good publicity?) But this whole experience illustrates a few interesting points:

1. Math matters.  When you think that you don’t need to understand how math applies to the tax code, think again, my sister and brother.  I’ve got dozens of internet commenters and tweeters begging to convince you differently.  And quite honestly, they’re not as nice as I am.

2.  It’s critical to check your assumptions. I’m convinced that Mr. Connolly wouldn’t have made the same mistake had he really considered what he was writing.  Yes, it’s a common mistake and even an element of misinformed political rhetoric to believe that a raise could actually be bad for a person.  But really?  Does that make sense?  Just like with math problems, checking to see if the answer is reasonable can save anyone from a lot of heartache.  (And I’m thinking this reporter has had at least some heartache this week.)

3.  There’s good reason that people are scared of math — big, mean, know-it-alls shame us into believing that a simple misunderstanding or mistake will bring down entire civilizations, crush the delicate sensibilities of our dear children and bring us perilously close to either left- or right-wing political domination.  In other words, if we don’t get every single syllable and number absolutely correct, we are wrong, wrong, wrong and nothing can save us from eternal shame and damnation.

(How many of you felt this way in school?)

But whether or not these internet commenters, bloggers and tweeters would like to admit it, not much about math will cause such drastic, awful consequences.  Sure, there may plenty of people more than willing to shout, “YOU’RE WRONG!” rather than admit that they, too, sometimes feel like math is hard and the tax system can be difficult to comprehend.  But in the end, I’m here to say that the basic math that most of us have to do everyday both matters and won’t kill you.

The fact that I’m still alive, sober and writing about this after the frenetic tongue lashing I’ve received over the last few days is testament to this.  You can survive making math mistakes (or other’s math mistakes).  And I honestly hope that someone is telling the poor Gregory Connolly this very thing.

So let’s fess up.  What was your last math mistake? Did it cause the ground to open up and swallow up innocent puppies and kittens? Or did you just lose a little cash or miss the previews at a movie or put too much fertilizer on your lawn?

*Update: USA Weekend is continuing to finesse its response to this situation.  The last section of the article has now been rewritten to correct the mistake, and the excerpt from my book has been removed.

Feeling Anxious about Math? Here’s how to cope

Photo courtesy of Sasha Wolff

Earlier this week, I provided a guest post about math anxiety and kids for Imp3rfect Mom.  I wasn’t surprised to get a comment from a reader asking about how to deal with her math anxiety.

My son is an adult so my question concerns me. I’m almost 60 and I’ve been mathphobic (big time) since I was in 6th grade. At that point math just crashed and burned for me and I struggled for the rest of school. Now I am self studying for a designation related to my job (the job itself doesn’t require math ability) but I have to learn some equations for the Time Value of Money for the last exam. I look at that chapter and just freeze. I actually am telling myself “well, if I just skip that part and study real hard, I’ll still pass the test.” This is ridiculous! How do I conquer 50 years of Fear of Math?

I’m sure you can hear the frustration in her writing.  (Do you ever feel the same way?)  I anxious about certain things–making difficult phone calls, traveling to places where English is not the predominant language, or asking someone for help when I’m lost.  (That last one is so silly, isn’t it?)

I’ve talked about the roots of math anxiety–the insistance that the goal is the right answer, timed calculations and an expectation of perfection–but now it’s time to share some ways to cope.

Allow yourself to fail. This is not so easy when you’re dealing with your finances or preparing to take a test.  But when you’re learning (or relearning) something, you will make mistakes.  Heck, even when you have something down cold, you can screw up.  If you’re feeling anxious about math, set up low-stakes scenarios when failure isn’t a big deal.  Try things on your own, for example, and allow someone you trust to check your work.

Ask yourself, “How hard can it be?” I’ve said this before, if I can do this stuff, so can you.  I don’t have the typical “math brain.”  I can’t do mental calculations, and sometimes I forget really basic facts like 6 x 7.  And believe me, if a fourth grader can do these tasks, so can you.

Make it fun.  I swear, I’m not violating math secret #3 (You Can Skip the Love). You don’t have to have fun or love math to be good at it.  Still, if you’ve read my book, you know what I mean.  Too often, math is cut-and-dry, boring numbers.  When it’s presented or explored using real-world stories with funny characters, it’s a lot more tolerable.  So, whether you’re studying for a test or trying to explain a concept to your kid, try making up problems using Sesame Street characters or your crazy Aunt Miriam who has 76 cats and wears a fedora. The sillier the better.

Find resources that work for you. I’m a big DIYer.  And everything I know about sewing, painting, renovations and carpentry, I learned from Google.  I promise.  Besides my book, there are amazing resources out there for folks who need a little refresher.  You can even find videos on YouTube or Flickr tutorials.  But be careful: sometimes mathematicians think they’re being really helpful, when they’re not.  Don’t let yourself be overwhelmed by minute details or unrelated tangents.  Click through these resources quickly until you find what you need.

Trust your gut. Just because a textbook or a friend has the information you need, doesn’t mean you need to follow that advice or process.  This is the beauty of being a grownup–we don’t have to follow the rules that a teacher sets out for us.  Think about when you feel comfortable with math.  Is it in the kitchen? When you’re gardening?  When you’re doing your budget? What is it about that process that is less threatening?  Use what you know about yourself–and your learning style–to step into these other, scary places.

So I’d love to hear from you now.  What tricks have you used to conquer your anxiety or fear–about anything?  If you have dealt with math anxiety in the past, what has helped? Share your ideas in the comments section.

Get the Anxiety Out of Math

"Math is fun power" Photo courtesy of dtweney.

Things that make many kids anxious: a new school, big dogs, the deep end of the swimming pool, bees, strangers, nightmares, math.

Did you notice something there?  For many children, math and bees are equally frightening or at least nerve-wracking.

Not all kids have math anxiety, but it’s not uncommon for elementary, middle or high school students to express nervousness about learning math or taking math tests.  At the same time, these students may also feel less confident in their math skills or even say that they hate math.

Want to know how to eleviate math anxiety–for your kids and yourself? Check out my guest post at Imp3rfect Mom.  You could win a free copy of Math for Grownups!

Would you like me to guest post at your blog?  Or do you know of a blog that I would fit right in with? I’ve got lots of ideas to share with anyone who will listen! And I promise I’m a good guest.  I wipe out the sink after I brush my teeth and don’t mind if the cat sleeps on my pillow.  Get the details here.