Let me be honest right up front. In 1988, I had a crush on Winnie Cooper. Understand that she was not real, but a character on the TV show The Wonder Years. She was a student in seventh grade. I was teaching seventh grade English that year. (Psych majors, feel free to analyze.)
The 1988 episodes were set in 1968 (all the episodes took place 20 years before and were narrated by the grown Kevin). When the series opened, Kevin, Paul, and Winnie were just starting junior high school. In 1968, I was just exiting junior high school. If I had attended R.F.K Jr. High with Kevin, I would definitely have been competing for Winnie's attention. (There are enough connections for me, that I wrote another post about my less educational take on the show.)
Winnie Cooper will never grow up.
But, the actress who played Winnie, Danica McKellar, is all grown up.
And she studied mathematics at the UCLA and graduated summa cum laude. She coauthored the Chayes-McKellar-Winn theorem, which concerns how temperature affects magnetism. Winnie's algebra teacher, Mr. Collins, would have been very pleased.
Danica is on a mission these days to convince junior high students, especially girls, that math doesn't suck. Research has long shown that those are the years when you lose kids, especially girls, from the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) curriculum.
In the seventh grade, I was a really stressed-out kid. One day, I totally panicked on a math quiz, and even though I had studied really hard, the quiz was blank when the bell rang. Blank! I wanted to cry. My teacher, Ms. Jacobson, let me have a few extra minutes during recess to relax and keep working on it. I'll never forget that gift. It was a turning point for me; my grades and confidence began to really improve.
If you could change one thing about education in America, what would it be? That schools would stop trying to push hard math concepts earlier and earlier -- it just makes math seem that much scarier, and it doesn't have to be. What should they teach that they don’t teach now? More creativity in the classroom - we need more music and art, and also more silliness and fun in math and science. Why shouldn't all classes feel a little bit like kindergarten?
I also heard Danica interviewed on NPR's Science Friday about keeping kids interested in math over the summer break. Being that I was an English major and my wife (the French major) and I were both a bit math-phobic, we tried really hard not to pass that trait on to our sons. We tried to make math fun and a natural part of things we did with the boys without being the two teachers that we both are in "real life." It turned out pretty well. Both boys did the math A.P. route in high school. One ended up an engineer with a math minor, and the other just graduated as a finance major with a real gift for numbers.
Those middle school years are wonder years in several ways. There is a sense of wonder in those students that will be gone when they are at the high school or beyond. If you can catch that part of them as a teacher, you can get some incredible results. If you can leave them with memories of your classroom and your subject that are full of that wonder - as are the adult Kevin's narrated memories in The Wonder Years - I think you may have done the best work a teacher can do.