Hooked on zero and infinity

From Jo Hamilton, Transylvania County Schools, North Carolina

I had a 6th grade student who had a reputation for being a trouble maker. He constantly annoyed teachers with his outbursts and apathy. I looked for ways to make him comfortable in my class, but school was a living hell for him. I saw a young man who found sitting down in a chair all day an unbearable task.  His chaotic home life made it difficult to find a pencil, much less find the time or support to complete homework.

The first thing I did was give him a seat in the back of the room with the understanding that he could stand up or sit on the back of the chair if that helped him get through class. Then I spoke to him about homework and offered him the alternative of staying after school to complete it.  He began to understand that I cared if he learned 6th grade math and he realized I respected his differences and valued his presence in my classroom.

As he began to relax, he revealed a wonderful sense of humor and began to apply himself in class. It took a few months, but slowly his math grade began to improve. He was staying after school two days a week, and he even began to ask questions about things he didn’t understand.

I looked for ways to capitalize on his sense of humor and creativity.  Soon he became a leader rather than a behavior problem.

One day I brought a book to school called, Zero, The Biography of a Dangerous Idea. The first few pages were really intriguing and I used them to get students excited about math. The first day I started reading the book this boy’s entire body language changed.  He was completely absorbed by the author’s description of how the number zero, hidden in a computer code, crippled a nuclear submarine.  The author talked about the fact that zero and infinity were terrifying ideas to early civilizations.  He told of men being murdered for even suggesting the concept of nothingness or zero.

A few days later I reached in my desk to continue reading the story and this lazy, unengaged student literally leaped from his desk and came flying to the front of the room.  He sat at my feet so he wouldn’t miss a word.  The next week he came up to me after class to say he had been thinking about how zero and infinity were really the same thing and launched into a long explanation of his thinking.  This boy who never did his homework was contemplating the meaning of zero and infinity! So much for the theory that he lacked intelligence!

This experience taught me not to have a narrow definition of what it means to be a “good” student. I learned to look at the whole person to find what makes them special.


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