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BLOG-Working the Divide

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Occasionally I tutor algebra, and this past week I worked with a young man on simplifying equations. He’s a diligent worker and understands the outline of the algorithmic work. However, as the equations get longer and more complicated, he can lose focus and skip over a mastered step in his preoccupation to work through the tougher parts. His problem isn’t understanding the work; his problem is managing the complexity.

That’s the thing with math: We have to master the easy and the hard parts simultaneously. Particularly troublesome is any problem involving fractions. There is something about division and the order it imposes on our calculations.

So now how to proceed? I recognize where my student is struggling. The trick is how to instruct him without adding to the overload that hinders him.

I struggle with the exact same problem in training our foster dog Bellatrix. She has a tendency to get flustered in new spaces and around a lot of activity. Among other service dogs, it’s obvious that Bella is the baby of the class. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that in a family of late bloomers, she’s a late bloomer too. Learning is an active process…we can’t simply wait for her to mature…so we’ve been taking her out with us into experiences that most people normally avoid with a dog. Last week, we went to the movies and a going away party together. This week, we went to the zoo.

My son and husband had gone to the Cincinnati Zoo on school trip just the week prior. They sent missives from Cincy via Facebook about the great day they were having. They came home triumphant though a little disappointed that they didn’t have time to visit the hippopotamus. This weekend my husband was in Cincinnati again…this time for a conference with Central State University students. The family conspired to join him on his Friday overnight so that we could pounce on the zoo first thing. My husband counseled that we try the natural history museum instead but the kids were adamant about going to visit live animals. Having a live animal ourselves seemed no big deal to the kids. Their parents were more reticent.

Our son made plans to make up ground not covered, and our daughter packed her panda hat from the national zoo. Ok, I told them, but if we get asked to leave, we scoot, ok?

Bellatrix did well in her first experience staying in a hotel room. But what about her first experience at the zoo? As a service dog, she’s welcome to enter that exotic environment but would she find it welcoming? She’s great with people; her job is to be social after all. But how would she react to a giraffe, a ostrich, a lion?

In the parking lot, we could tell Bellatrix was already alerted to the unusual circumstance. Her keen sense of smell told her as much. I was working on her leader skills knowing she calms down whenever she’s employed. Even before reaching the ticket office, we talked with the zoo personnel in the parking lot; they asked about her status as a service dog and her breed. We gave further information to the employees at the ticket booth who were friendly and made sure we checked in with other zoo personnel as we made our way through the grounds. I was nervous but we had a good plan. We were given good counsel on retreating from any chance confrontation.

We made our way to the hippopotamus taking in the African exhibits along the way. Bellatrix was tense but still lovingly social with the people that she encountered. Lots of people. At the enclosure of the giraffes—the first strange creatures she had a chance to see—she whimpered but graciously did not bark. I rewarded her good behavior and kept her far from any close encounter with the animals. She got a lot more people time however, and by the time we made the meerkat enclosure she relaxed into her role as social animal.

Thinking we’d only be there for a short town, our band of four ran circles around the grounds finally closing the zoo at . We were in fact among the last twenty cars in the parking lot. The employee we first met was stood at the park exit and we debriefed him on our overall experience inside. In retracing our steps, I thought back to the journey we had just taken. We pointedly had avoided the apes and the insects but made our way all the way around the grounds in good order. Where we had worried about confrontation; we found mostly mutual curiosity.

We take our children to the zoo so that they can forge new relationships…with people? Perhaps, but mostly with the animals representing so many parts of the globe.. The more our kids learn about what is out there, the more they care. The more they care, the more responsibility that they will assume in preserving the blessings of our planet.

Retrace our steps to where I began this tale, you might ask,”Does going to the zoo with a service dog help you teach young people mathematics?” Actually I think it does. The trick is to teaching is restraint…filling in skill sets without adding to the overload that blinds…and linking layers of experiences over time.

With Bellatrix, I touch base with her core training by giving her a job she knows well. We venture forth from this place of relative comfort and safety. From here, we brave the divide that offers teasing glimpses of the vast unknown.

My objective is to remain alert to the signals that my student sends up. Fear signals stop. Confusion spells caution. Delight says go! If we tend our lessons together well, the mysteries revealed will evoke so much more wonder than alarm.


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BLOG-Working the Divide

by Amy Magnus