Math Has Always Been Political

It’s been a while. Since November, actually. Since the day white people (myself included) had a rude awakening to the state of our country. The day protecting our most vulnerable became undeniably crucial, and combatting bigotry in the classroom went to the top of the agenda.

I want to keep this short. Lots of  great people have already written on this topic and I want to highlight them:

Jose Vilson on the politics at play in our classrooms
Rafranz Davis on why seeing Hidden Figures is important
Melinda Anderson on how teachers learn to discuss racism
Rusul Alrubail on teaching about the Muslim Ban
 Radical Equations, a book by Robert Moses that discusses math and civil rights. 

Sea of White-ness

Sometimes the best conversations in math class happen by accident, but they are cultivated by nurturing a classroom culture of mutual respect and exploration of ideas.

In my non-AP Statistics class, I start class by giving them a graph or infographic and then I allow them to notice and wonder about what they see. Here’s what we did the first day of class to combat imposters masquerading as reputable news sites:

 Today, I prefaced the activity by reminding them of the agreed upon norms and letting them know that we would be talking about guns.  (Some background knowledge on this class:  there is a wide variety of abilities and all grade levels are represented in this class.  The makeup of the students doesn’t make addressing a touchy subject easier or harder, but the variety of abilities and ages does make the class unique compared to most traditional math courses.)

Here are the images we examined:


I usually have the students share their favorite noticing and favorite wondering with their team, and then as a group, they decide which one they want to share with the class.  I’m always delighted to see the question “is this data reliable” or “what is the source of the data?” Given recent events [i.e. fake news], these types of questions are vital.

Today, however, that question, what is the source of the data, took an unexpected (but important) turn.  None of the students (nor I) had heard of the National Shooting Sports Foundation.  So we used the Googles and were quickly brought to their website.  We evaluated their “dot org” status, admired their clean, organized website, and read through their mission statement.  It all seemed legit.  I noticed they had a Board of Governors.  And so I said, “Picture in your head what this board of governors looks like.” (I recommend you do the same.)


What ensued was a beautiful discussion about the people who are protected by the second amendment whose faces are not represented by this board of governors and the message that sends to people of color (and women). We as educators (and especially as math teachers) can’t shy away from these difficult conversations.  They can happen with compassion and respect for different points of view while still addressing inequities in society if the students see each other as humans first.  Be brave, we’ve got a world to change.

Afterward, Kindness.

Teachers had a uniquely difficult job today:  Support students who feel unsafe about the future of our country.  Do so with grace and humility while simultaneously dealing with our own feelings of uneasiness and hopelessness.

Based on what I hear my students say on a daily basis, it seems as though their views on the presidential race fell into one of four categories:  1.  Trump 2. Hillary 3.  Neither  4.  Indifferent.  This isn’t surprising for high school students in the far north suburbs but it seems important to note that my students’ views fall all over the political spectrum.

I began each of my classes today as I do at the beginning of each trimester:  You have my respect because you are a human.  My number one job is to keep you safe, and the most important thing that happens in this classroom is kindness.  

This isn’t anything new to them and it’s the culture we create in my classroom.

Then I pointed to this on my wall:

A gaping gash in the blue faux concrete. Many of them have never noticed it before but now their eyes are fixed on it.

This is where my “This is a safe zone” sign used to hang, I say.  When I painted the pillar, I had to remove it, and after sticking it back on, the adhesive wore out and it fell into the garbage without my knowledge.  But a wall with a sign doesn’t make this room any more safe. We create a culture of kindness and respect and use mathematics as a catalyst. THAT is what makes this a safe zone. 

We then had great conversations in both classes:  Spirals in college algebra, sampling bias in AP stats. But none of that matters if students don’t feel safe. As a teacher, I’ll do that every day as no part of my job is more important.  I’ll continue to fight for access to high level mathematics for all of our students and promote kindness in all of my classes. No one gets to vote on that but me.


Not Today, Please.

My prep period is the last hour of the day, which means the rest of my day can seem sort of like a hurricane, where I pass through the eye here and there.  Today, mid windstorm, I get the email I dread:  “I know you don’t like to sub on your prep, but I am down to my last two teachers, and I need a sub for Ms. XY.”

Great.  It’s Friday of a week where Monday was Halloween.  My to-do list was growing so although I don’t normally prefer subbing, today I REALLY didn’t want to.  But, I couldn’t turn this one down.  It was an emergency.  So, I sulked and complained to whoever would listen and felt sorry for myself until 1:25 when I had no choice but to mosey up to D238 and unlock the door for the eager students waiting outside.

Me:  What class is this?

Student:  Drama 

Wonderful.  To add a twist to my already knotted demeanor, it was a drama class (did you hear my dramatic tone?). Don’t get me wrong, drama class is great.  I just know nothing about it and feel powerless to assist anyone amid a sea of teenage angst.

The sub plans were pretty clear:  The kids will be memorizing their lines for the play until 2:00 and then they will rehearse in the drama room.  So the students went to their rehearsing spots and got to work.

At 2:00, we convened in the drama room and that’s where I was blown away.  The students realized that they were missing many of their classmates today (deer hunting opener) and attempts to rehearse would be futile.  Someone suggested they play “Whose Line is it Anyway?” (A hilarious TV show from the early 2000’s if you have never seen it.) They gathered their chairs around and threw out scene ideas and set the stage and off they went.  Then for 15 minutes, they flawlessly improv’ed like they had been doing it for years.  The classmates not on stage laughed, listened intently, and gave their peers their full attention.  I didn’t see one cellphone out.  Not one.  Not once.  When there were 5 minutes remaining, they played a game called “Splat” (which I’m proud to say I participated in) in which speed and acting like a household appliance are requirements.


Scene:  A pregnant woman and her wife shopping for baby items

So what did I learn:

  • Set up routines.  It was clear from the get go that this class had developed a specific agenda and today was no different.  They knew where to be and what was expected before I even read the sub plans.
  • Let your students rely on one another.  Students spent the majority of the period memorizing lines.  They helped each other and were dependent on one another in order to be successful.
  • Trust your students.  As the kids went off into their small groups, many used smaller rooms and corners of the building for a quiet space to get into their character.  The end result will be a memorized script for rehearsal. Which leads to my next item…
  • Give the students meaningful projects.  There is no way to “cheat” on developing a dramatic character.  There is no way to “copy” the memorization of lines vital to acting them out.  But every student in this class was engaged in doing both of these things because being the best character they could meant something to them.

At the end of the day, I left that drama room with a lifted spirit and joy in my heart.  I also left wondering how I could develop that kind of excitement over learning in my own mathematics classroom.  I still covet my prep time, but I’m grateful to have gotten this opportunity to see this different student learning world on the other side of the building.

Spiraling Math on a Stick

I’m sitting on an airplane, about to embark on a nine day professional development bonanza in Baltimore, Maryland.  Right before we were given the airplane-mode directive I get this message from Christopher Danielson:


Now, quick background:  I adore Christopher, everything he creates, his wife, his kids, and pretty much all that he touches.  I’m being hyperbolistic (which is totally a real word) but if you made a word cloud of my blog posts over the last year, it would be borderline embarrassing how large the words Christopher and Danielson would be.  S0, to make a long story a little bit longer, I was out-of-my-mind excited about this opportunity and wanted to text everyone I knew.   The hawk-like gaze of the flight attendant made that a difficult pursuit.  Anyway, it was a long flight.

Fast forward through a handful of prototypes, test runs with the resident 5-year old mathematician of the household, 250 colored card stock copies, and a pep-talk from the Professor himself, I was ready to hit the Minnesota State Fair to be the visiting mathematician/artist at Math on a Stick.

I settled on using 1-100 at the recommendation of Christopher because many children would be familiar with a hundreds chart either from home or school.  I could easily help kids made the transition from that familiar chart to this “different” way of arranging the same 100 numbers.  Making that comparison was something I would not have thought of, and it ended up being incredibly important.


Admittedly, I was a tad nervous that my idea would flop.  That all of the fun I’ve had with this spiral wouldn’t translate to a wider, younger, more playful audience.  All of that fear melted away when that first adorable young face sat down, and grabbed a marker.

One of my favorites of the day was the girl who figured out that if she colored the multiples of 10 and then connected them, they turned into triangles.  Always triangles.  She tried again with multiples of 5, with the same result.  The glow in her eyes was precious.

Simply stated, this was one of the most fulfilling mathematics experiences I’ve had ever.  What Christopher Danielson has created with Math-on-a-Stick represents the paradigm shift in the way adults view mathematics through the playful exploration of children.


An Ode to Elementary Teachers

“The problem is that most of the middle school teachers don’t have a specialty in math.”

When I heard that statement, I knew it bothered me.  But at the time, I was unable to articulate exactly why.  There are a lot of problems with education, many more with math specifically.  But I know that pointing the finger squarely at the grades below is both unproductive and damaging.  Not only that, but when we are convince ourselves that groups of teachers lack certain “necessary” content knowledge, we close our minds to anything else they can teach us.

I’ve had a busy couple of weeks at AFT Thinking Mathematics training for 9 days and then straight on to Twitter Math Camp for another 5.  Both of those experiences will change my teaching for the better, and I found a common theme throughout:  Listen to what elementary and middle school teachers can teach you about mathematics pedagogy.

We talk about connecting representations of mathematics like graphs, tables, and equations.  But how often do we connect what kids do in elementary grades to what they experience in high school?  We lament in high school about kids lacking number sense, but how do our classroom routines support and build on the number sense kids have created through the primary grades?

Notice the similarities between the Ten Principles of Thinking Mathematics and the NCTM Math Teaching Practices:


Credit: AFT


Credit: NCTM

I know those are dense, but they are the foundation of what we need to do in order to improve mathematics education.  Every shift we make needs to be based in these principles/practices.  And the ideas need to connect from counting to arithmetic to algebra to calculus and all the places in between.  We can no longer be complacent in teaching as we were taught.  Doing so means committing negligence toward a generation of students who need a deeper understanding of mathematics in order to use it successfully in the world they create.

Tracy Zager brought it all home for me with her keynote at Twitter Math Camp.  Here is her blog post with the link to the slides and the video.  I heard the same things the research had been telling me over and over in Baltimore:  We need to listen to each other.  There isn’t a hierarchy of teaching from elementary through post-secondary.  The conversations between vertical groups of teachers are important – even necessary – to helping our students develop as mathematicians.

Here are some pictures from the AFT Thinking Mathematics Training (credit:  AFT)

0722162104-1.jpg0722162104a-1.jpg0722162105-1.jpg0722162107-1.jpgDay 5 - Diamond Dot Pattern ExamplesDay 5 - Pool BorderDay 5 - Seeing Dots