Monday, November 30, 2009

Inspiring stories

Everyone gets discouraged at times in life. Sometimes the strongest students get the most discouraged of all. Such students expect a lot from themselves, and it can be hard to live up to one's own high expectations. It's important to keep things in perspective. One good way to deal with such feelings when you are struggling is to find other people who can use your help. Everybody wins when you do that: it feels good to help someone else and explaining a tricky mathematical idea can deepen your own understanding of that idea.

The best way to learn is to teach somebody else. Math circle alumna Beth Schaffer is a great example of that idea in practice. Back when she was a Guilderland High School student coaching younger students, Beth wrote a couple of essays she has given me permission to share.

The first essay is one she wrote about her own middle school struggles, starting in sixth grade. She wrote it when she was a high school student in order to encourage the middle school team she was coaching at the time--that team went on to win the state championship by the biggest margin in recent history.

Beth's essay underscores a very important lesson--don't let yourself get discouraged by comparing yourself with other students--instead, keep on working on figuring out what you can, be willing to ask questions when you can't, and encourage and help everyone around you whenever you can. Not every team can win every contest, but every team can win something far more important than contests--the ultimate prize of developing their problem-solving skills, their ability to work collaboratively, their ability to communicate mathematically, and their ability to create a mathematical community that encourages others.

Her second essay, originally written for her college applications, described the spirit of Albany Area Math Circle meetings so well that I again asked for permission to share it, which she also granted. A few details of our meetings have changed since she wrote that essay--for example, we now meet on Fridays instead of Sundays, but her essay beautifully captures the essence of what our math circle is all about.

A willingness to work hard, to persevere when the problem seems impossible, a willingness to try half-baked ideas and to try simpler versions of the problem and to make mistakes and to celebrate and learn from those mistakes and to ask questions and share your half-baked ideas bravely without fear of looking foolish--and to encourage others to try their own half-baked ideas and to ask such questions--that is the heart of a student who will get the most out of participating in Albany Area Math Circle. That's also the heart of someone who will get a lot out of life.

Beth is now an MIT junior, where she has continued to work with younger students through MIT's Splash and ESP Programs as well as at Girls Angle. When she was a high school student, she participated in the Harvard-MIT Math Tournament (HMMT) as a member of Albany Area Math Circle's teams. Beth is now a tournament co-director of HMMT. She is pictured above with HMMT co-director, Winston Luo, on what must have been an intensely crazy day of running a large local contest earlier this month....somehow they are both smiling!

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