I posted this to my students today. I thought some of you might enjoy reading it.

Hi Class,

Since I began teaching many years ago, I have heard many possible versions of why students couldn’t get their work in on time. The most common is: “I’ve got a lot of stuff going on at home.” Another common version is: “I’ve got a lot of stuff going on at work.”

Of course there are the individual events related to health and money that jump up and get in the way of schooling. Sometimes these issues are fabricated as plausible excuses to get out of work, but far more often there is at least a seed of truth in the statements. I don’t discount them. In fact, I can understand how home life, work, health, and money can all impact the way we think, and therefore the way we perform.

If you see yourself in any of the above statements or possibilities I talk about, please don’t take it personally. My point is not to single you out. In fact, I’ve heard each of them many times already in this class alone. So why am I bringing them up? My goal is to show everyone in class that we are all stuck in life at the same time we are trying our best to work through this class. Life isn’t polite enough to stand by silently while we complete the coursework. It stands up and shouts at us while we are trying to concentrate.

Stay with me while I explain the following. Please pay attention. It’s important, and it will make sense by the time I’m finished.

You as a Function Box:

Math teachers use the concept of a function box to show how equations with two variables work. If you drop a number X in the box, a number Y pops out. Y is a function of X. It sounds more complicated than it really is. If the box contains the equation Y = X + 1, the output will follow a simple pattern. Drop the number 5 in the box, and out pops 6. The function box added 1 to the number 5 and provided the answer 6. The box might have a more complicated equation that takes the number 5 as X, runs it through the function box, and delivers 30 as a result. We don’t know what the equation is, even though we might imagine a host of them. It might be any of the following:

Y = X + 25

Y = X x 6

Y = 7.3/X x 20.5479452

The equations could be even more complicated than that. The point is that we don’t know what is in the box until we test it. In fact, we have to test it a couple of times in order to determine what’s really inside the function box. To test it, we’ll try another number. Drop unlucky 13 in the box and see what happens.

In the first function, Y = X + 25, the number 38 will pop out of the box

In the second function, Y = X x 6, the number 78 will pop out of the box

In the third function, Y = 7.3/X x 20.5479452, though, it gets a little hairy. The number is a little more difficult to process. I used a calculator on this one. Drop 13 in, and the number 11.5384615 will pop out of the box.

If we can’t see the equation inside the function box , then it will be more difficult to imagine what produced a decimal number like 11.5384615 for Y when we dropped in poor unlucky 13.

Enough with the math lesson. Here’s my point. People are function boxes. If we drop an input into them, some kind of an output is generated. Physically, if I eat too much cake, I will gain weight. That is an example of a function box at work. Mentally, though, we are more complex. If I drop the same event into different people, I get different results. Take a holiday for example. Some people love to celebrate holidays, and others hate them. Suicides increase around Thanksgiving and Christmas–the very times we should be most happy . . . the same time others are getting together to exchange gifts and joy.

Take another event–a bad day at work, an argument with a loved one, a health issue . . . plug in anything that is bothering you. We all have these issues. If I drop each one of these issues into a student’s function box of a life, I will get a result. It will be different for each student. Some will continue on with their work, some will call work to a halt and not produce anything. Some will drop the class. I’ve already lost too many students from this class due to drops. You see, some input X got in the way of each student who dropped. Some event dropped into their function boxes and they responded differently than you have responded. Instead of generating a solution to their problem or finding a way to work around it, they responded to their X input by generating a Y output that says quit working and get dropped from the class. Many times the students shared their X inputs to me before they dropped. Yes, they were problems, but they were all problems that a good function would turn into a success.

I want all of you to know that the function box inside of you is not as much of a mystery as you might think. You can write the equations that go inside your function box. You can develop solution equations that give you a successful Y instead of one that puts you right back where you were before you started the class. It’s up to you to write those equations, and it us to you to live with them. I have had heroic students who gave birth during an online class and wrote their discussion question posts in between contractions while at the hospital. I have had students who have had all of their belongings, including their computer, stolen, yet they found a friend’s computer and completed the class. I have had students who were working three low-paying part-time jobs and still managed to get the classwork done.

I am not belittling the problems any of you have, I’m saying that everyone has problems, but some write the equations in their function boxes so that they get a different output–a successful output. That is what I wish for all of you.