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*What one nonprofessional
activity do you find most inspirational and why? (Wharton)

A little over two years ago I
began tutoring high school students in several types of mathematics,
including preparation for the S.A.T. Test. While I did this initially to
earn money, I have continued to tutor (often pro bono) because I enjoy the
material and the contact with the students.

I have always enjoyed math
tremendously. I can remember riding in a car for long distances as a child
and continuously calculating average speeds and percentages of distances
covered as we traveled. In college I took upper division math classes such
as Real Analysis and Game Theory (and placed near the top of the curve)
though they were not required for my major. All this time spent playing
with math has left me with a deep understanding of the way numbers work
and the many ways in which problems can be solved.

When I first began tutoring I
was stunned to find that most of the kids I worked with, although very
bright, not only lacked the ability to solve complex problems, they were
very uncomfortable with some of the basic principles of math. This
discomfort led to fear and avoidance, and the avoidance led to more
discomfort. A vicious cycle began. Instead of seeing math as a beautiful
system in which arithmetic, algebra and geometry all worked together to
allow one to solve problems, they saw it as a bunch of jumbled rules which
made little sense that they were forced to memorize.

As a tutor, I found that it
was important when starting with a new student to find out where his/her
discomfort with math began. Often, this meant going back several years in
their education to explain important basic concepts. For some* *students,
fractions and decimals were the point at which math stopped making sense.
For many others, it was the introduction of letters to represent numbers
in algebra. Some students found that identifying their weaknesses was an
embarrassing process. I explained to them that it was not their fault.
Everyone comes to understand new concepts in math in a slightly different
way, and the problem was that no teacher had taken the time to explain
their “problem area” in a way which would make sense to them. Since
math was a system, once they missed out on that one building block, it was
not surprising that the rest of it did not make sense. Our mission
together would be to find the way in which the system worked for them.

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Once we had identified the
initial “problem area,” I would spend a lot of time getting the
student to play with questions in that area from a lot of different
perspectives. For example, if fractions were the problem, then I would
create games to get the student to think of fractions in terms of
division, ratios, decimals or other equivalent systems. This would often
be a fairly unstructured process, as I wanted to see how the student’s
mind worked and keep them from feeling any anxiety. Usually it did not
take long for the concepts to start becoming clear to the student, as
he/she played with the numbers in the absence of the pressure of school.
My goal was to not just white wash over a students weaknesses with a few
rules which would be quickly forgotten, but to help them develop an
understanding and an appreciation for the underlying principles.

I found this process to be
very satisfying for both myself and the young men and women that I taught.
It was a wonderful feeling to have a student laugh out loud with relief as
a principle which had been unclear and causing anxiety for years suddenly
made sense. Once these old “problem areas” were cleared up it was
usually quite simple to make clear the subjects that they were working on
at the time, especially since I already had an understanding of how they
were best able to understand new concepts. Again, I found it important to
get the student to play with the new material and look at it in several
ways so as to develop a true understanding of the material.

I was quite successful as a
tutor. One young man increased his Math S.A.T. by 150 points. Another
student improved so dramatically in geometry, her test scores jumped from
about 55 percent to over 90 percent, that her teacher kept her after class
and asked if she was cheating. Although most of my students did not
improve this dramatically, I walked away from every lesson that I gave
feeling that I had helped someone understand and enjoy math. I hope to be
able to continue teaching, if only for a few hours a week, for the rest of
my life.

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