Thrown from an Airplane

Students at my school are preparing for parent-teacher conferences, for which they (the students) prepare a slide presentation about how they’re doing, where they can improve, and what techniques they’ll use. In view of that, one student came this morning to ask how he’s doing in my trig class. As I collected my thoughts I asked him to sit down and tell me how he thinks he’s doing in the class. He then delivered this unexpected simile: “It’s like we were thrown out of an airplane,” he said, “and into an ocean.”

“Really?”

“Before it was like we were in a boat and we’d go scuba diving, but yesterday it was like we were thrown out of an airplane into the ocean.”

The before that he mentions I assume refers to our most recent topic, trig functions on the unit circle. The thrown-from-an-airplane-and-into-an-ocean feeling comes from moving into trig functions based on triangle side ratios (SOHCAHTOA).

I’m always glad to hear students describe their understanding but, to date, this is my favorite description. The sentiment was so unexpected and the image so expressive! It is also strangely satisfying—not because I want my students to feel lost at sea, but because he could have said something far less heartening. If he’d given me a tired idiom (“It’s like we jumped from the frying pan into the fire”) or something just plain tired (“I’m lost”) the message I would have received would be that he’s not confident with the material. That’s a valuable message, but what this student communicated to me is that although he is not yet confident with the material, he’s engaging with it enough to come up with an original and vivid analogy for his struggle, and to compare it with an original and vivid analogy for a previous unit.

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