In which absurdity is declared underrated

With the holiday’s coming I start thinking about how to handle two weeks of almost non-stop interacting with people who I only get to see once a year or so. How do you recap a year’s worth of adventure in just a few hours? What stories will you tell? How do you get others to tell their stories?

Perhaps it’s odd to some to even be thinking about some sort of strategic battle plan for conversations, but my current life in the woods with occasional flutterings into civilization to do/attend professional development has skewed my perceptions toward human interaction. And I’ve been learning French.

I’d never noticed it in English before until I saw that French-speakers do the same thing with respect to opening pleasantries. I know that a normal respond to “Hey, what’s up?” is “What’s up?” I know this. I have followed that script as long as I can remember. And, granted, there is some tonal work involved to indicate a level of current expressed happiness, but still, what’s up with the parroting? This happens in French as well where responding to “Ça va?” with “Ça va” a thing. And how many student interactions do you have on a daily basis that boil down to those two words? As you stand at the door while students file in how many “what’s up”s pass through your lips?

It’s normal human interaction: polite, superficial, rarely remembered. It’s a script. Follow it, and you don’t need to think.

And yeah, I know, TIME. It’s not possible to have unique conversations beyond the generic pleasantries with every kid in the class. The math just doesn’t work out if you actually want class to start before the bell rings again.

But what if you tossed out some crazy to a few random students as they walked in? How many students hear “what’s up?” and continue into the room on cruise control? And then through the class in the same setting? Engaging, but never all the way there. Why should they? Routine has been established by two words. The status is quo.

I believe in disequilibrium as a powerful force. How much more alert are you when something odd or unexpected happens? Kate’s a fan of instigating arguments. I especially like her moral that “confusion and mistakes are necessary for learning.” But why wait until the math to sow confusion? Why not start as they walk in the door?

Due to a childhood spent reading a lot of Far Side and Douglas Adams, I have a healthy love of the absurd which causes me to love the TED Ideas article on turning small talk into smart conversation that came across my dash today. This bit caught my eye first:

We stagger through our romantic, professional and social worlds with the goal merely of not crashing, never considering that we might soar.

Not crashing. Auto-pilot. Only partly engaging. How many students do you have in that pattern? I live in that pattern far more than I’d like to admit–doing what needs doing but not pushing hard because I might fail or be uncomfortable. Shaking that mentality is a work in progress and will probably be something I always keep an eye toward. But this isn’t about my personal fears of mediocrity.

This is about a challenge to myself and for you: break the parroting. The TED article has some nice ideas on this. I personally like their framing of not giving the expected response, such as

Beverly: It’s hot today.
Gino: In this dimension, yes.

What sorts of responses could you give to the “what’s up”s and “hi”s students toss your way as they walk in? Current news? Ponderings of world domination? Sneaking in odd comments that actually relate to a problem you are working on that day with the class? Hah, I can imaging doing that daily and once the kids are on to you they start dissecting your responses for clues to that day. They start engaging with the class before you’ve even begun.

Getting students to question the perceived norm existing in their heads about math class, about their peers, about society, and about themselves will always be a focus in my teaching practice. Working to do so through my typical lens of the ridiculous is just a bonus. Though I know of at least one other teacher that’s taking a similar tack.

So I ask you this: what’s up?


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