Students > Teaching Math

I just finished It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching by Tom Rademacher, and I have a lot of feelings. It had me hooked pretty early on.

It had me hooked for several reasons. Tom (I’m pretty sure I’m good with first names here, we follow each other on twitter, so we’re basically best friends) kicked his book off by noting several things that matter a lot to me: humor, Race is necessary to talk about in teaching, you must teach to write about teaching, and no research. He also curses a lot, which I appreciate.

Teaching is a shit show. It’s a wreck. It has been necessary for me to teach middle school boys that drawing on a girl’s face is not effective flirting. I once seriously considered making the sign, “Please do not eat Clorox Wipes” because it would save me not having to repeat myself so often. No matter what you do, Hot Cheetos dust is everywhere. Penis drawings are an accepted fact of life.

Teaching is also a painfully beautiful, human activity. My students and I cry, for good reasons and bad, often. There have been harsh, unnecessary words from both of us (more often from me), and ugly truths are revealed. I have been called some names I’m not willing to retype here, and I have been told I will forever be someone’s hero.

Because it is all of these things, teaching is beloved by Hollywood, and I really cannot emphasize how much I hate that. There are a lot of teaching movies I loved before I became a teacher, and now I detest them all. I hate talking about teaching with people who are not teachers, because unless you are in it, it is nearly impossible to get right. It has happened more than once that a well meaning person has praised me for the work teachers do to “save those kids!” Setting aside (ha!) the ugly implications of what they mean by “those” kids, just how wrong people are about that makes me equal parts nauseous and angry. I hate talking to non-teachers about teaching, because they don’t get it. So I don’t do it. Except when I do. Which is most of the time. It’s like people who are wrong on the internet. You know you shouldn’t engage with them, but they. are. just. so. WRONG.

I say all of this because while reading It Won’t Be Easy I often thought, “I gotta get _____ to read this.” Rademacher is brutally honest about teaching and articulates a lot of things I think about but struggle to say. I want a lot of my non-teaching friends to see that.

In the first, Rademacher is really honest about being a White teacher. Because I am also a White teacher struggling to figure out what that means and how it affects my students, I really appreciate that. Rademacher acknowledges that he really wants to exclude himself from the “White men” category, but that doing so is exactly the problem. He tells us about listening to a student who has had all White teachers for two years in a row and comments, “It’s just too many White people.” Rademacher acknowledges how uncomfortable it is to look this stuff in the face but how incredibly necessary it is to do.

Round about this chapter (White Guy Bullshit), is when I silently revoked my earlier wish that, “I gotta get _____ to read this.” I can see recommending this book to well meaning non-teachers and having them totally shut down at this chapter. But, of course, that’s the problem. As exhausting as it is to try honestly confront Race as a White teacher, it’s more exhausting to talk about Race to White people who aren’t actively trying to examine their Whiteness. But I have been trying to listen to the voices of People of Color and two things I have heard loud and clear is that if I want to be a White ally, I first have to own my Whiteness, and then I have talk to other White people about Race. I have this insane privilege that when it gets to be too much I can just keep being a White person who doesn’t have to think about Race all the time. My Students of Color don’t have that privilege. The discomfort of White people is something we need to accept and not run away from because People of Color are uncomfortable all the damn time. I know that because my Students of Color have told it to me over, and over, and over again. I don’t get to judge or excuse or try to forget that. I have to listen.

Rademacher also called me out on the fact that I do not engage nearly as much with my school as I should. I have avoided as many meetings as possible, do not know the names of most of the adults in the building, and am not advocating for my students outside the classroom. Fair enough. I’ve been called. I’m going to think about how I can change some of that this next year. My students are not best served when I try to pretend that things outside of my classroom do not affect them or me. I cannot do everything, I know that. But I can do more.

Rademacher is also unwavering in the fact that while yes, content is important and stuff, students are more important. When I think about some of the worst moments I’ve had as a teacher they are often when I have insisted that a worksheet is the most important thing a kid does that day, when both the student and I know that’s a lie. Times when I’ve noticed a kid is really emotionally upset, but I have been too wrapped up in myself to give that kid the space and time to deal with it. Or even just acknowledge that its happening.

I have been thinking more and more about what my actual goals are in the classroom. If you spend more than 10 minutes with me, I don’t think you’ll have any doubt of my love for or dedication to math as a subject. I spend a lot of time talking to teachers about teaching. About how to approach this standard vs the next standard. A lot of those conversations are fascinating, and I can totally get into a rabbit hole about how to best introduce students to quadratics or philosophize about how deeply my students need to understand the concept of zero. Unfortunately, as fun as all of that is, teaching math is less important than my students. These students we interact with every day are people. There are humans in my classroom and if I really think about it, my best days of teaching are when that fact is front and center. I’ll sometimes talk to non-teachers about my classes and how I changed the topic that day because kids couldn’t care less about the boring standard but cared that day about something else. The intense fear that my students will probably fail the ACT is often the first reaction of said non-teacher. Sigh.

Students do not learn in classes where they are not acknowledged as people. They might memorize a few things to get you off their back, but they will not open up and really start thinking in a place where they cannot be themselves. After the election, my kids needed space to talk about that. I could have shoved a worksheet down their throats, but good god, why? They weren’t going to learn math that day. Even less emotionally fraught situations like when a kid asks a question that’s interesting but has nothing to do with what I’m supposed to do that day, you bet your butt I’m going to help my students explore that if that’s what they’re genuinely interested in. To heck with the lesson plan.

Yes, yes, I’ll make sure they can solve equations. Fine. But the school year is actually pretty long and there’s plenty of time for that. We, as teachers, get so caught up in ourselves and our lesson plans that we sometimes forget that the students in our rooms are people. We have to get through this standard and figure out how to grade a billion things and we need data on how our students are doing for god’s sake!

I have never had a kid say to me, “Ms. Perkins, I really want to do this math because you told me how important this worksheet is and I really want to improve my score on that standardized test.” I have (actually) had kids say to me, “Ms. Perkins, I do not care about this stuff at all, but I’ll do the math because of you.” The not quite articulated bit there is that they do it because they know I care about them. The content stuff comes along, it really does. But when I’m not doing a good job of letting them know I care about them, guess what? No math. Game over.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t days when I really do push kids down one path when they want to do something else. There are. Rademacher does a good job of helping to draw the line between teacher and friend in his book, too. Like it or not, those are totally separate things, and there are actions we have to take as teachers that we would not take as friends, and that is as it should be. Our students are humans, but they are also children. They’re going to do stupid, ridiculous things and we have a responsibility to be the grown ups in the room. It’s just that some people (these are the people I mentioned before who are WRONG) think that being a grown up means being in charge and controlling everything. When really, being the grown up means helping to build a safe place where kids can learn and figure out both how to factor a quadratic and how to be a good human.

Rademacher’s book is really good. There are a ton of other, fantastic books out there about teaching, but this is the first one I have personally read that was as honest about all of the things I think we need to be honest about and put front and center the fact that our students are people first and students second. You should probably all read it. I’ll lend you my copy if you like.

The Mathematician Project: Student Edition

Easily the most common question I get about the Mathematician Project is “Have you ever had students research the mathematicians?” I had my middle schoolers do it once, but it was only mildly successful. Having seen how many people seem to be doing just this (the number of hits the Mathematician Project blogpost gets from Google Classroom is nuts) however encouraged me to try again with my high schoolers this year. The results were much better, although, of course I now have many ideas for how I can improve for next year. The overall result, however, was great. Kids were proud and my face hurt from smiling as they presented to each other.

Below are the instructions students received (word doc Mathematician project) Much of the wording shamelessly stolen from Jonathan Osters (@callmejosters). Continue reading “The Mathematician Project: Student Edition”

Immediate Reflections on the School year

School got out a couple of hours ago. I still have some grading to do and I have to clean and pack up my classroom, but I’d like to get out some gut feeling reflections on the year. The good and the bad.

I know people say start with something positive, but I’d rather get the things I feel bad about out of the way.

Continue reading “Immediate Reflections on the School year”

Going Outside the Standards

This started as a comment on Fawn’s post on Euclid’s Algorithm, but was getting obscenely long, so I’m making a new post. Go read Fawn’s post, because it’s really cool, and Fawn shares a ton of what her students are thinking, which is fantastic. Kids brains are so amazing.

I’m really curious about what we choose (or are told) to teach students. I absolutely get the need for standards and I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t have them. We should, but it makes me crazy that the standards are seen as the boundary of knowledge for a given grade. I know we can have really interesting conversations about nearly every topic in math, because I have had to eat crow every time I’ve said something stupid like “_____ is boring.” MTBoS corrects me every time. (Nicole Bridge, I’m looking at you.) Continue reading “Going Outside the Standards”

What Matters to Students is Not Always What Matters to Us

It was teacher appreciation week last week. If you are reading this, there is a really high probability you are a teacher (I can’t say 100%, my mom always reads these). Allow me to begin with, I appreciate you so much. I really do. Especially because by reading this blog, you’re part of MTBoS, and MTBoS is how I make it through the school year most of the time. Thank you. Continue reading “What Matters to Students is Not Always What Matters to Us”

#lessonfail & Self-Doubt

I had a great conversation with Christy Pettis today, and amidst other recent conversations about how MTBoS is used by folks and why people do and do not get involved, it has me thinking.

I love MTBoS. It makes me a better teacher. But I do think we (including me) have some work to do around not appearing so perfect. We share a ton of good stuff, but don’t often share our fears nor failures in the classroom. (Although, perhaps I just need to look harder, as this was just shared with me on twitter.) Continue reading “#lessonfail & Self-Doubt”

Discussing Hidden Figures with Students

We just finished watching Hidden Figures in all my classes and today was devoted solely to discussing the movie. Here’s how I set up the discussions:

Yesterday, I gave students a printed copy of this article. For those unfamiliar, Kevin Costner’s character, Al Harrison, tears down a “colored girls” bathroom sign in a dramatic scene in the movie, but this is fabricated – never happened. Continue reading “Discussing Hidden Figures with Students”

MCTM 2017 Reflections

I feel so much better. I love the MCTM conference. MCTM (Minnesota Council of Teachers of Mathematics) holds their annual conference in Duluth every year, and the timing is perfect. We’re so close to summer, but with a little bit less than 2 months, we’re actually not. I get tired this time of year, but after MCTM I always feel rejuvenated and ready to end the year strong. If you want to just dive in, here is where many of the resources from the conference are housed. 

Here are my big take-aways. My descriptions are not necessarily the session titles – they’re my recollection of what I took from the session. Continue reading “MCTM 2017 Reflections”

Introducing Solids – Origami Style

My geometry classes are starting a brand new unit – Solids. Rather than starting out with vocabulary and definitions, I decided to start with origami and good golly am I glad I did so.

TL;DR We made origami cubes, square pyramids, and triangular prisms. Students with less mathematical-status were able to show off & students with high mathematical-status struggled. Beautiful. Students got curious about the relationship between edges, vertices and faces in solids.

The first lesson I will offer is that teaching the class en masse is a terrible idea. Some kids get it quickly, some kids are super lost and need lots of help. I led students through making a cube yesterday under the doc cam and it was a mixed bag. Last night I made videos of me making the shapes and students watched those on iPads today. It went much more smoothly. I was able to bounce around and help who needed help and students who didn’t need the assistance were able to move at their own pace.

Here is a video of folding the cube:

(Just kidding, I want to get this post up for MCTM, but the internet is too slow to upload the video. I’ll get it up when I can)

Here is a video of folding the square pyramid:

After students had made each unit, they counted faces, edges and vertices – my goal was to get them to Euler’s formula, which we did, but it required a lot of zometool units and a fair amount of prodding on my part. In hindsight, a valuable part of this activity was discussing what edges, faces, and vertices were.

Some students hadn’t made very clear creases on their cubes and struggled to find the edges, although they knew the cube should have 6…no wait…8…12? Really? We made some predictions about relationships between edges and faces for other polyhedra. I gave them a table to record the results.

The following day,  I brought in a bunch of Zometool polyhedra and had students add to their tables. I was thoroughly unable to get students to find Euler’s formula (for those unfamiliar, for all convex polyhedra, V + F – E = 2) on their own, but I did ask them to compute V+F-E for each entry in their table, and there was some satisfying oohs and ahh’s and “What?!”s when they kept getting 2.

I would love to tell you that I’d thought of this at the time, but I didn’t. In hindsight, I could have had them plot their coordinates into geogebra as (x, y, z) coordinates- it makes a nice plane that would have been good to wonder about. 

What DID happen during all of this was that status in the class got turned on its head. Which was absolutely great. Students who have generally been super successful in my class really struggled to make origami. Students who have really struggled seemed to do a little bit better. It felt welcoming to them. I had one student who had mastered the blow up cube, and he became an absolute superstar helping other kids. He doesn’t normally have a good time in math class. The whole thing was worth it even for that one kid. It was great.

I had a ton of kids say something along the lines of “THIS ISN’T EVEN MATH,” which of course was like candy to me to talk about what the heck math is and how we define it. We talked about spatial reasoning. We talked about order and rules-when they’re important, and when they can be broken.

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”. Continue reading “I’m in over my head and okay with that”