Ms. Perkins is the Grinch: Denying My Students Flexagons

I did a bad thing. I showed kids something awesome, and then I got mad at them when they tried to do the awesome thing. In hindsight, I feel pretty crappy about it.

Knowing students were going to be nuts the week before break, I assigned projects in the hope that they could be nuts, but hopefully get their work done amidst the complaining and excitement and fear about break coming. Students were to calculate the trajectories of Angry Birds. “Fun!”, I said. “Hooray!” I declared. Boring. I thought. Vomit. I felt. But I have to make sure they can compare quadratic functions, and this project summed up what they needed to know pretty nicely.

The day before break, I like to do something fun, so I bust out hexaflexagons. Although students had plenty of time to get their projects done, some weren’t finished, so this seemed a perfect solution: students who needed the time could work on their projects, and students who finished get to do fun stuff. That’ll teach ’em to procrastinate! Like I don’t do that every day. What a moron/jerk I am.

Before I give students work time, I show them Vi Hart videos about flexagons, and jaws drop. I show them fabric flexagons I’ve made, and there is a scramble to get to play with them first. I explain that you can make a flexagon with as many sides as you like, but I haven’t succeeded in engineering a 12 sides one yet. I do have the template. I show them. Students are chomping at the bit to make their own. Then I dropped the hammer. If you’re done with your project, you get to make flexagons. If you aren’t, you have to finish your project. No fun for you!

It didn’t seem like I was being mean at the time. I was annoyed with students who hadn’t used their time in class before now, but I wanted them to have a chance to finish the project. To show what they know. So I let them use this time to get it done. Tried to be the nice guy. They could ask questions of me and their peers, and get the project done, and the rest of the students would be happily working away at flexagons. The perfect solution.

I flutter around the room, helping students see symmetries and guiding them in folding their first flexagon, gleeful over how happy students are figuring this out. Clapping with joy when a student makes an interesting design to suit the transitory nature of flexagons. Marveling at how their brains make sense of the work.

Then a student who was finishing their project called me over for help with a quadratic equation, and in my head I groan. Uuuuuuugh, I’ve shown you this 10 times, I think. But off I go, wanting them to learn. Trying to be helpful. But really, I was just eager to get back to flexagons. Thankfully, a flexigator would need me next and I could go back to being happy. But then someone couldn’t identify a vertex and I would slump my shoulders, hang my head, and drag my feet to go help them do the boring stuff again.

The moods of my students mirrored my own. Those working on “work” were miserable and panicky and hated that they couldn’t figure it out. Or they hated that they could figure it out, but would much rather be making flexagons. Students working on flexagons were happy and engaged and even though they got frustrated, they were so relieved and joyful once they succeeded. Students who finally got their quadratic equation weren’t joyful. They were just grateful it was over.

This was supposed to be a “fun” project. Except that it wasn’t fun. I didn’t care about it except that I was pleased it was a “real life” application of quadratics that seems intuitive to students. A colleague of mine presented it to me, and she genuinely seemed to enjoy it. Was happy about it. I bet her students felt that. I bet they liked it more. I’m ashamed I couldn’t bring that enthusiasm to my students. I’m ashamed I didn’t push to find out why my colleague enjoyed it so much. The premise of the project is fine. It nicely summarized things students learned about quadratics, but my “enthusiasm” for the project was fake and my students can always tell.

Now it’s break and I have all this free time. I wake up, make some coffee and assess my options. I could grade those projects, or I could quilt an impossible triangle. I could  enter grades, or I could make an origami icosahedron to hang on my Christmas tree. Needless to say, I have not finished grading projects, but I do have a lot of new mathy art in my house.

So why am I making my students pick the boring thing? Why am I requiring it? Because the standards say:

  • Students are able to write a quadratic equation given two points.
  • Students are able to identify the zeroes of any quadratic equation.
  • Students are able to do boring stuff and I have to teach it to them because I have to.

I genuinely do love teaching. I love seeing students get it. I love watching them help each other get it. I really wish that the standards were different. I honestly think the skills making flexagons are important. Here are the flexagon standards:

  • Students are able to measure accurately.
  • Students are able to identify and create congruent triangles.
  • Students are able to plan ahead.
  • Students are able to identify and create symmetries. 
  • Students are able to notice and describe patterns. 

We want students to be able to do these things! I’m not wasting time when we make flexagons. I get so frustrated that I have to teach things few students care about when I could be teaching good things and both I and my students will be happier for it.

But I’m not in control of the standards. (At least not yet.) So given what I have to work with, and given that I do want to teach and I do want both my students and me to be happy, here’s the plan.

  1. Never again will I introduce amazing math and deny that option to students. I am frankly pretty shocked at myself that I would show students flexagons and then tell a student they weren’t allowed to make one. I did that. I remember the look on the students face. They were so sad. This ranks pretty high on my list of horrible, regretted teaching moments. I will find time after break to make it up to my students. They all should get a chance to make flexagons. Shame on me.
  2. Even though the standards can be boring, find something in them that I care about. Students pick up on that. They know when my enthusiasm is real and when its fake. I love patterns – fall back on that when necessary, because it’s freaking everywhere in math. I should’ve made a bigger deal about the symmetrical patterns in quadratics. I shouldn’t have given up on this project. I could have pushed more for myself to find the things that I love in it. I could have made less of a deal about averaging the roots and more of a deal about logically where the bird would fall if it started here and reached a maximum height here.

We all fail sometimes, but this was a big one for me. I screwed up, and I need to own that. Now I’m going to go make myself feel better by decorating cookies after my favorite proofs.

2 thoughts on “Ms. Perkins is the Grinch: Denying My Students Flexagons

  1. Hey Annie, thanks for the post! I totally relate to this, and you’ve inspired me to make a New Year’s resolution to let ALL of my students in on it when I show them awesome math. I think I’ll highlight this in the GMD Newsletter. One of the most relatable posts I’ve read in a long time.

    Like

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