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Algebra: Whipping Word Problems

Whipping Word Problems

The mythological Greek gods were very creative when dealing out punishments. Take, for example, the extraordinarily unpleasant fate of Sisyphus. The guy was no peach, known as a cruel and heartless king, and was too sly for his own good. When Death itself, in the form of Hades, came to claim him, he managed to shackle Death and hold it captive. Eventually, people started to notice that no one was dying ("Hey, Gary, sorry about running you over with my chariot this morning—I was changing radio stations; no offense, but you don't look so good decapitated") and Sisyphus's luck ran out.

As punishment, he was doomed to roll a large boulder up a steep mountain in the land of the dead for all eternity. That's pretty nasty, but it's not the worst part. After hours and hours of hard labor, moving the mammoth rock slowly, gaining ground at an agonizingly slow rate, and straining every muscle in his body, just before reaching the zenith of the cliff and accomplishing his task, the boulder would roll all the way back down the hill.

I can't imagine such a depressing fate, to spend all of eternity forced to do something that is inherently painful and pointless, knowing that no matter how hard you try, you'll never be able to accomplish your task. However, thousands of students every day engage in their daily battle as Sisyphus. Each morning, they walk up to the giant cliff that is algebra and a massive boulder representing word problems. In fact, their fate is arguably worse.

Even though they are not doomed to work word problems unsuccessfully for all eternity, they lack one thing Sisyphus doesn't—direction. At least he knows what he's supposed to do! I have seen lots of students who stare open-mouthed at word problems with great, gleaming eyes, wet with unshed tears, who all say the same thing: "I don't even know where to start! How am I supposed to do these problems if I can't even figure out the first step?" (Of course, there's more cursing when they say it, but you get the idea.)

In this section, I'm going to risk incurring the wrath of the mythological algebraic deities and free you from your doom. I'll introduce you to four of the most common types of word problems and provide a plan of attack for each one. That way, instead of living in fear, you can stare those problems down and calmly retort (in the voice and comedic timing of a big-screen action hero), "Let's rock." You'll feel much boulder. (Horrible puns definitely intended.)

 

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Algebra © 2004 by W. Michael Kelley. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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