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Keep Your Eye on the Chalk

Keep Your Eye on the Chalk. As I wrote about Violet’s struggles with numbers, I was reminded of my statistics class when I worked on my Ph.D. Our prof, who was close to retirement age, was a legend at Texas A&M. He was the consummate gentleman, who wore a white shirt and bow tie to every class. One of my colleagues, who did her Ph.D. in math education, knew him well and told me to keep a very close eye on him all semester, as it would be worth every minute. So, I did. I sat front and center of the class. My most lasting memory is all of the young adult students, who demonstrated a lack of interest in the professor’s lessons. Not me. Some of my fellow students even fell asleep in the back row; they always seemed bored and blasé. I was afraid to blink for fear that I would miss something, as there had been very little math in my years of teaching Spanish and raising a family, and certainly, there had been no statistics.

In those days, we didn’t have devices in class; calculators existed, but we were not allowed to use them. Each problem had to be completely worked on yellow legal pad—reams and reams of legal pad. The prof checked each step of the calculation for each student. If an error was found, he showed it to us, and we had to do it again.

On an old-fashioned chalkboard, he meticulously worked out each problem for us. Chalk flew in all directions. I often wondered about how much chalk he actually used in a semester. Stat was a mystery for me; however, I apparently got so I could do the problems, as I know that I got good grades. One problem: Statistics was not meaningful for me. I could do it, but I didn’t know why it mattered.

What I learned in my stat class: Make learning meaningful. Create stories to make meaning. I’m not sure that is what the professor thought he was teaching me, but that is what I learned. From that moment on, I knew that my future university classes had to be meaningful for the graduate students, who were teachers all day, and took classes at night. When I went on to teach at the university, I loved research and still do, but it is always about making it meaningful with a story.