I’m in over my head and okay with that

I spent a lot of time over spring break thinking about how my classes are going. I’ve concluded that I don’t think they have been going very well. Before break, I thought to myself (several times), “Oh my gosh, I can’t wait for break when I’ll actually get to do math!”

If you spotted the problem with that statement immediately, you are more astute than me. I was at least halfway through break before it occurred to me that it’s pretty backward to be a math teacher – ostensibly interacting with math all day long – and thinking I have to leave school to “do math”.

Once this occurred to me, I thought pretty hard about what I consider to be “math”. I also spent a lot of time reading Tracy Zager’s, Becoming the Math Teacher You Wish You’d Had, which is just excellent. Can’t recommend it enough. I decided we haven’t been doing very good math in my classes lately. Not everything has been bad. I’ve had very good days and really excellent discussions, but overall, I don’t feel like I’ve been teaching well. I came to several conclusions:

  1. I need popsicle sticks. I have been relying too much on a small percentage of students to drive our conversations. Some students have been able to get by without participating. That sucks. So I’m bringing cold calling back.
  2. I need more debate. I want kids talking more, and they love debating, so that’s where I’m headed. I also happen to have a ton of excellent ideas and resources from TMC that head for this specific aim.
  3. If I don’t think it feels like MATH, then we’re not doing it. Here’s how I’m defining MATH:
    • math (all lowercase) is finding the area of a circle. It’s solving ten quadratics. math is calculating the probability that I’ll pull 2 red marbles out of a bag. math is worksheets. math is arithmetic*. To be very clear, this doesn’t feel like MATH to me. This is the boring version.
    • MATH (all caps) is patterns. MATH is penrose tiles. MATH is debating the question, “Is age discrete or continuous?” MATH is number talks. MATH is connecting your quadratics solution to a graph to a generalized formula. MATH is the ice cream bowl vs cone problems. MATH is the good kind.

*I want to be very clear that math can become MATH very quickly. 1 + 9 = 10 is math to me but is MATH to my kindergarten nephew. “How many ways can you make 10?” is MATH. I don’t mean to imply that any specific topic in mathematics perpetually resides in math or MATH, the flow is continuous depending on the situation and the people working on the problems.

I am, of course, anticipating problems with the changes outlined above:

  1. Excellent, debatable, rich problems are harder to find/create. This will eat a lot of time, but I’ll be a happier person for it.
  2. Some students are going to push back. If they’ve been able to skate (and some of them have) they’re going to rebel against me not letting them skate any more.
  3. I have specific standards I need to teach, and while obviously they’re “math” if they’re not what I consider to be MATH, I’ll have to find a way to make them more MATHy.
  4. All of these are dumb reasons to not make my classes better, so I’m going to do it anyway.

Here’s what I’ve done and what I plan to do:

Today in class, I put these pictures up on the board and asked kids what they saw.

Some responses from students:

“There are cool wavy shapes”

“That looks like a puzzle? It’s probably a math puzzle.”

“The little girl is not contributing.”

“They made a mess.”

I then told kids that these were pictures of my math club from over break. There were general exclamations of surprise, which quickly turned to indignation.

“Wait, that’s math?! Why can’t we do that math?! That looks fun!” was the gist of the chorus.

I agreed with them, and said that I am going to work on making math class look more like this. I acknowledged that I might not always be successful, but I want my students to help keep me accountable. Might this lead to students complaining every time class isn’t exciting? Maybe. But fear of complaining students seems like a dumb reason to not let students know where I’m trying to steer us. Maybe I’ll regret this later. I don’t think I will. I may be wrong.

I also talked at length about how and why I plan to on using popsicle sticks to cold call students. I explained that I’ve been relying too heavily on a few students to keep discussions going and that’s not helpful for anyone. I gave an explicit example about how math is not a speed game – I told students I’m working on a tough problem, have been for weeks now, and I’m not sure when I’ll be done. I gave examples of me failing, publicly, in front of people I respect.

I also assured students, “It will happen that I will someday pull your popsicle stick and you will not have anything to say. And that’s okay. It’s fine to not yet be sure – we’re all here to help you, and chances are, if you’re stuck on something, so is someone else. It’s not okay for you to roll your eyes and say you don’t know while looking at your phone.” We’ll see how that plays out.

I switched things up later in the day and used the Talking Points from Chris Luzniak (@pispeak) and Matt Baker (@stoodle) in my geometry classes, and I gotta say, I nearly burst into happy tears hearing students debate the statement, “Being good at math means being able to do math problems quickly.” There was virtually universal disagreement with this statement and students said things that just made my heart sing:

“Just because you’re thinking about something for a while doesn’t mean you don’t get it.”

“I like thinking through things. I hate when I have to go fast.”

“Learning takes time.”

I won’t lie – I really needed to hear that coming out of my student’s mouths. I’ve been feeling pretty down about how class has been going lately and it was really great to hear that some of the things that I (and I’m sure their former teachers, as well) value have gotten through to them.

At this point, you’ve probably quit reading. If you’re still here though, you’re likely thinking, “So…. you want to make math class interesting. Duh.” I know this isn’t revolutionary, but I’ve been pretty reflective about MTBoS recently, and one of the things I know it does for me is that when I post stuff, I feel obligated to follow through on it. So this post is mostly about me holding myself accountable. Debate, MATH, popsicle sticks. Until the end of the year.


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