Us and Math: Using Play to Heal a Broken Relationship

“I am not a math person.”

As we all know, there’s a certain social hazard that comes with our occupation in math education. Folks often feel compelled to tell us their math stories, often declaring )with some amalgam of shame, pride, anger, and resentment): “I am not a math person.” And when they do, we’re left with a choice to make.

Do we defend math? Do we unpack their story more, offer condolences, comfort, or a hug? Do we try to change their mind and convince them that they are a math person? Ignore the comment and shift the conversation? Stare awkwardly into the distance until they walk away? Flee?

The trouble with any of these approaches is that they inevitably lead into (or actively avoid) a conversation about math identities with one side declaring “I am not a math person” and the other side trying to change their mind. And changing someone’s mind about their identity is a terrible context for productive social conversation.

So I’ve started to use this simple and earnest reply: “I am not a math person either.”

The shift has had some profound impacts on how the conversation moves forward, and I want to share more about my approach with you. 

Us and Math: How Play and Creativity Can Heal a Broken Relationship

Welcome! If you saw my “Us and Math” talk at the Creative Edge conference at West LA College, you’ll find several resources I mention in my talk below. Feel free to scroll ahead to the “Resources” section.

To my regular readers: This post is a little different than my usual posts, but there’s still something in it for you! I gave a 12-minute talk at a creativity conference to a non-math-educator audience that was very different from our usual audiences at math conferences. The premise of the talk was about why and how we need to move the conversation of our math identities beyond the simple polarity of “I am a math person” and “I am not a math person.” (Spoiler Alert: I am not a math person.)

I invite you to watch a screencast of my talk. I’d love to hear what thinking it sparks for you and how we can build the message together.

Student Voice and Building Classroom Norms

Last week, I wrote about Pair Drawings, one of my favorite ways to establish classroom norms at the beginning of the school year.

Starting on the first day of school, I want my students to know these two fundamental norms. (1) Learning mathematics is a collaborative effort. It’s something we do together; it’s not something that I do to you. (2) How you respond to frustration when you’re struggling reveals more about your talents and character than your ability to avoid struggling altogether.

Simply telling my students these norms won’t be as effective as having them practice these norms and uncover them for themselves by reflecting on their experiences. That’s why I appreciate Pair Drawings so much.

But the learning students make from this activity won’t endure unless we do two things:

1. Allow students to see themselves reflected in these norms.
2. Post a physical, visual reminder of the classroom norms in the right place.

Here’s a way to do that.

Pair Drawings: An Activity to Build Classroom Norms

Welcome back math nerds!

This is my favorite time of year. Clean slate, clean classrooms, fresh ideas, and refreshing optimism. I also love this time of year because I love building classroom norms and setting the tone for the classroom culture that is necessary for productive and rich mathematical thinking and discourse.

Starting on the first day of school, I want my students to know these norms:

Learning mathematics is a collaborative effort. It’s something we do together; it’s not something that I do to you. 

How you respond to the frustration of struggling reveals more about your talents and character than your ability to avoid struggling altogether.

But I don’t want to tell my students these norms; I want them to practice these norms and uncover them for themselves by reflecting on their experiences.

“Pair Drawings” is one of three activities I use in the classroom to build culture and outline norms at the beginning of the school year.

Which Passion Describes You Best?

I facilitate a lot of lesson studies, lead workshops, and orchestrate other professional learning opportunities with teachers around the country. I’ve learned that teaching is a professional and personal act of passion. We teach who we are, and we have deeply held cultural beliefs about our work. Teaching is an action that is informed by our beliefs, and before any good, productive professional learning can happen, we need to hold space to share these personal beliefs with each other.

I often start my work by having teachers reflect on their passions and identity as a teacher. In the past, I’ve used the National School Reform Faculty’s document called Passion Profiles, but I’ve found the document has some limitations. So I created my own based on their amazing work and my experiences of what works.

I’ve inserted the full activity in this post.

What do you think? Is this valuable to you as a teacher? As a facilitator or leader? How can we make this better? Feedback welcomed. Please share your thoughts in the comment section or keep the conversation going on Twitter (@mathgeek76).

“Elicit” and Our Role as Illusionists

Question:  If someone asks you what “elicit” means, could you nail the definition?  Try it. How’d you do?

Confession: I was an English Literature major in college. I tutored college-level math and fell in love with teaching because of math. But back then, words and expression and theater were my jam. And in many ways they still are.

I was co-writing an article the other month about instructional routines that elicit student discourse in the math classroom. And at one point, the word-nerd in me paused to ponder, “What the does ‘elicit’ really mean? Is it an invitation? Is it a pulling or a pushing? What other words have the same root as elicit? Illicit? Were they opposites? Did they have related etymologies?”

I figured it was worth exploring and down the rabbit-hole I went. Once again.

Hector and Our Greatest Professional Dilemma

What do we do when the needs of our students conflict with the mandates of our profession?

I share this dilemma because I think it’s important that we do so as educators. Too often, we privatize our experiences in isolated silos, unwilling to expose our sense of conflict and turmoil as we navigate the messy dilemmas inherent in our work.

Failure seems safer when no one is watching. We need to have the courage to make failure cheap.

Clothesline Math and the Power of Discourse

I want to share with you a video that shows the raw power of using Clothesline Math in your classroom to promote student to student discourse.  I share this video because I want you to see how clothesline activities generate student to student discourse and promote student thinking and math development.  And I want you to feel empowered to use this tool in your classroom.  And I invite you to share what you learn in your elementary, middle, or high school classrooms.