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Scrap Paper

I always hated math. Numbers just never seemed to add up for me like they did for everyone else. I developed all kinds of systems so no one would see me counting on my fingers or counting numbers. Despite years of tutors and practice, I still count on my fingers and I still use my system of counting to add. I just don’t trust that 5 + 7 = 12 unless I count it out. Even as I wrote this, I double checked my math with my fingers.

My dad was always the one to help me with my math homework. Most of it was filled with tears. I couldn’t understand how he could see numbers in the word problems and he couldn’t see how I couldn’t. He would always tell me to get some scrap paper. He would draw solutions and create equations to make sense of the story problem. Later as my math skills developed, I learned to appreciate how x could represent an unknown number, but early in my math learning it was completely beyond my comprehension.

For my dad, a piece of scrap paper is a necessary tool for figuring out problems. He is a masterful carpenter, but if you ask him to build something the first thing he will do is say, “Ok, let me get my paper, I need to draw this out.” His scrap paper has turned into a little notebook he carries with him so he can jot down his notes and ideas. He draws and figures and solves the problem of how to build something, all on a piece of scrap paper. I can appreciate what he does, but it’s a skill I don’t possess.

I use my scrap paper in a much different way. Often as I’m driving in the car, waking up in the morning or waiting in line, an inspiration for writing will hit me. I’ll grab a piece of scrap paper and jot down as many ideas as I can. Later these thoughts are put into paragraphs and stories. I’ve started to carry around my own notebook to record and keep these thoughts that seem to leak out of my head and would be lost if not collected and recorded. I use scrap paper to organize my thoughts and stories. My dad can appreciate it, but he doesn’t use his scrap paper like I do.

We all have strengths and different ways of organizing and making sense of information. Unfortunately, we are often measured by how well we can do things just like everyone else. Because of this, my dad grew up thinking he was a poor reader. I grew up thinking I was unable to do math. These early identities have a way of sticking with us and are difficult to break. My dad now reads quite extensively for his ministry work. He uses his scrap paper to take notes on his reading. It’s a tool that works for him and he’s learned to use it well. I’ve managed to survive through graduate level statistics. Despite the anxiety I have over living through high school math again as I help my kids, I find myself reaching for the scrap paper and writing out the problems. I’ve learned to turn the stories into equations and back into stories that help me understand the math. It’s a tool that works for me and I’ve learned to use it well.

This idea of respecting differences in learning and finding our own tools for working through problems has resonated with me throughout my experience with students and especially with the four young men who I worked with and led to the creation of my book, Because of 4. I’m getting excited to begin sharing pieces with you starting in October. I hope by sharing my scrap paper with you, you will be able to discover ways to use some of the tools which worked for me and do more to celebrate and encourage the ways we learn and experience the world differently.

How do you use scrap paper?

I’ve explored this idea of shame and learning differences before.  Check out one of my earlier blogs, Dare Greatly, connecting with the work of Brene Brown. 

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