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?

In which a blog is recommended

There are a lot of blogs out there but one I actually email subscribe to is One Good Thing. If you don’t read this one, it’s teachers posting about one good thing that happened in their day. Some are big things but most are the small things that happen to make us remember why we teacher.

News is inherently biased toward the ugly and the depressing and the horrifying because that is what sells and generates clicks. This is also why I think sites like One Good Thing are critical for retaining sanity and a balanced outlook on life.

A post this morning from Mr. Dardy made me want to write a quick note to myself her as a reminder when I get back into the classroom. Specifically this bit:

She told me ‘I thought my job in a math class is to know what formulas to use and how to solve equations with them.’ I explained to her that this was certainly part of her job, but that success in a math class should involve more than that.

So, note to self: Sometime early in the year make sure to ask students what their job is in a math class and what qualities are needed to be successful. Use this to start conversations about growth mindset and what mathematics really is as early as possible and maintain those conversations throughout the year.

in which I ‘fold’ cubes with others

A while back I posted some dice ‘folding’ I did that was inspired by Eric Aberg. While I was working on it, the thought crossed my brain that it would be extra fun to do this with teachers at PCMI. I figured I could probably get a small group together some evening and have some fun.

picture of the group that showed up to fold cubes.

See? Just a small group for an evening of math art shenanigans. If you look closely you can spot @crstn85, @zaduma, and @matienda.

Continue reading

A blog recommendation

Oh travel. How you mess up any attempt I make at routine.

Quick post as things are busy! I’ve been trying to learn more about elementary math as it feels like a gaping hole in my knowledge. I only learned the words partitive and quotitive about a year ago and now there is this thing called subitizing and with the number of niblings now in my life I have a compelling interest in elementary math ed beyond pure intellectual curiosity.

To that end, my recommended reading of the day is Nicora Placa over at Bridging the Gap. She posted about number bonds today, which is a topic that’s come up a few times in the last month for me so it was pleasing to further my understanding.

Back to work with me. I’m resting my head in 5 different places over the next two weeks and have PD to finish prepping :]


travel season

Late spring/early summer are busiest for me with respect to travel. Since the start of the year, the only trip I’ve taken is to NCTM, but that changes this Wednesday when I fly out to Boise, ID for a conference where I get to work with middle school teachers on ccssm stuff. After that it’s to Washington state (Walla Walla, Seattle) to see friends and family then to Honolulu, HI for a 2 day PD I’m running then back to home for less than 24 hours before heading to DC for a conference for 2 days then home for 4 days before heading to PCMI in Park City, Utah for 4 weeks. Inhale. There is another trip at the end of July to Chicago for the NCTM HS Interactive Institute, but that’s after being home for 1.5 weeks, so it’s not as attached to this 7ish week jaunt.

I am very much looking forward to all the teachers I get to meet on these travels. There are so many cool things happening in classrooms all over and I feel privileged to get little windows into so many places.

If you’re in one of my destinations, hit me up on twitter as tweet ups are wonderful :]


foothold situation

I’m reading 5 Practices for Orchestrating Productive Mathematical Discussion and ran across the term foothold. Now, I watch a fair amount of sci-fi so this typically means alien possession within an organization to me so I did have a moment of confusion. That’s definitely not how it’s meant here.

While laying out the case for good task selection as a way to promote equity in the classroom, on p19 Smith & Stein note that

“Once a student has a foothold on solving the task, the teacher is then positioned to ask questions to assess what the student understands about the relationship in the task and to advance students beyond the starting point.”

I really like the term foothold used this way. “Will this task allow all my students to gain a foothold?” Isn’t that a nice question to ask as you plan out tasks for your kids?



What’s on your walls?

There was a lot of artwork in my classroom. Origami everywhere, as you might expect, but also a large poster by Alex Ross of the Justice League, decals of transformers (including a 3 foot Optimus Prime behind my desk), video game posters, photos from my backpacking trips, space posters by Greg Martin, Escher prints.

My challenge to those still working on #MTBoS30 (and everyone with a blog, really), is to post some of your favorite classroom decorations that you either have or want to have.

These posters from Zen Pencils are on my want list 🙂


fun with folding dice

I posted the video below on my facebook back in March when I made it and as I ponder topics for #MTBoS30 I thought I would post it here as well.

Inspired by Erik Aberg’s Ghostcube video, I ordered some reject casino dice and went to town with them and some packing tape (after discovering scotch tap is useless with sharp-edged dice). I highly recommend giving it a go if you want a fun project.


cleaning day–digital edition

It’s possibly I use cleaning to avoid other work, but we’re not going to get into that right now. This is about information flow.

On a whim I pulled open my spam folder in gmail today and found a bunch of emails that shouldn’t be there. Nothing critical, but still. I also found some subscriptions I had forgotten about (and clearly didn’t miss), so I unsubscribed from several of them. Anything after this paragraph is me rambling. The takeaway for this post should be: check your spam folders regularly for things you might not want to miss.

Information is a curious thing. There is so much out there and it’s easy to get sucked into reading thing after thing after thing until you’re 20 clicks deep in wikipedia trying to understand the history of miners and worker’s rights in Turkey.

And everything has a bias. It’s the sensational stuff that makes the top headlines. I’ve been reading too many things lately that just break my heart from Syria refugees to kidnappings to rampant privilege and sexism. When I worked with students every day, these stories didn’t hit me as hard because each day I was confronted with evidence the world has good people in it who want to do well and make things better. Working from home that is not as much true.

But I still get to read blogs from you all who are doing cool things and working to help your students become the people they want to be. So thank you to all the bloggers out there for helping me stay optimistic. The little paintings of your worlds mean a lot to this stranger.

post-edit: bonus! Today’s xkcd sums up nicely how I feel about all the information sliding across my screen this past week.