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Mathematical Mondays

When Words Are Worse Than Sticks & Stones

Words will never hurt me, huh?

Sometimes that can be true. If someone calls me a geek, I’ll just agree with them. If someone tells me something I know is untrue, big deal. It’s all well and good to say we should know who we are and be confident enough that name-calling doesn’t hurt us. But words hold a particular danger. They have a tendency to become more than just words.

I’ve talked about it before, how words have power and saying you’re teasing doesn’t make it okay. It’s continued to be an issue in varying ways in my classroom.

On a regular basis, a student will tell me something like, “Guess what—Girl X (sitting right there) made out with Boy Y last weekend.” First, I don’t care. Second, I’m pretty sure it isn’t true. And what does the girl do? Smack his arm playfully, act shocked, and say, “I did not! Stop it!” … with a smile.

In other words, encourage him to keep saying such things.

After years of getting the attention he wants from “joking” about girls being “easy,” what else is he going to think he can get away with?

I say when a guy (or anyone) is a jerk, call him out on it. Shut him down. Don’t give him what he wants.

On a related note, a student has spent most of this year calling himself and his friends a particular made-up word. “Miss Lewis, I can’t do this—I’m a _____. _____’s don’t do math.”

(Mostly this has had “Stop trying to make ‘fetch’ happen” running in my head all year.)

But then some of the friends let it slip that this name for themselves was a portmanteau of two words, one of which is ‘pimp.’

I am not okay with this. I know the word has come to have certain pop-culture meanings (i.e., pimp my ride), but as a noun, in the context of a group of boys calling themselves this, I’m not okay with it.

So I’m calling them out on it. I’m asking them if they know what a pimp actually is. (We’re in a sheltered enough community that some kids actually don’t know.) Then I’m asking if they know how a real pimp views women. Once that’s clear, I ask if they understand now why I don’t want to hear anything more about that made-up word in my classroom.

So far, they’ve understood, but I haven’t really seen the main instigators yet. (Just started having these little talks on Friday.) We’ll see if I actually have any success keeping the word out of my classroom. And better yet, convincing these kids that it’s not such a great thing, whether in my classroom or not.

I suspect the originator will argue with me and say my least favorite sentence: “It’s okay, Miss Lewis.”

I truly worry about someone who so constantly tries to insist something’s okay when I tell him to his face that it’s not.

I’ll keep trying.

Speak up:


Less than the Best Can Be AMAZING

The third quarter of the school year just ended for me. Predictably, I spent much of last week staying very late after school with kids desperate to get their grade up at the last minute. If they’re willing to do the work, I’m willing to put in the extra time.

A few different groups of kids come in. There are the kids who’ve been failing since the beginning of the YEAR, and when they find out they’ve just gotten it up to a D, they break out in the Hallelujah Chorus. There’s a similar group who get it up to a B from a C, say, “That’s awesome!” and carry on with their lives. Both groups could’ve been a whole grade higher if they’d just applied themselves more earlier.

There are also kids I’ve been working with a little longer than the past week. They get it from a D up to a B, and want to know if they can get it any higher at the last minute. In those cases, I have to try to convince them that their B is awesome, because I’ve already bent as much as I could to help them.

Then … there are the A-minuses.

Some A-minuses are easy to deal with. They’re one percent from an A, and one of my usual culprits (i.e., retake a quiz) is easily enough to bump them over.

But others are tougher. These are students who may not get math easily, so they work their tails off to get that A-minus. They should be SO PROUD of that A-minus. A line I heard more than once last week:

“It’s not good enough for my dad/mom/both parents. I’ll be in so much trouble.”

Sure, some of these kids might just be using the “blame the parents” line to get me to feel bad for them and help them nudge it up to an A. But I’ve met some of the parents at Parent Teacher Conferences, and I suspect those kids are telling the truth.

I get that parents want their kids to reach their utmost potential. I get that some kids slack off (those Bs that could’ve easily been As) and need motivation/pressure from home to get it in gear. I get that there’s pressure for getting into a good college.

I also get that if a kid works really hard, and the result of that hard work is an A-minus, that A-minus should be celebrated. It’s not “less than perfect.” It’s an amazing accomplishment.

The whole idea of grading has issues. I try to be as fair as possible, but there’s still an almost arbitrary nature about it. Should grades reflect effort, actual mathematical understanding, or a combination of both? If a combination, in what proportion? What earns an A in one class may only be enough for a B in another.

It sucks.

I hope some parents will help it suck a little less by acknowledging when less than the “best” is more than good enough.

Speak up:


Why Do We Do "Pointless" Things? (Hint: They’re Not)

The other day, an English teacher at my school emailed the faculty with the link to this piece in the New York Times about literacy (or lack thereof) in Mexico. It makes me want to yell at someone, hit someone, and just scream and cry at the same time.

Here’s part of what set me to tearing my hair out:

A few years back, I spoke with the education secretary of my home state, Nuevo León, about reading in schools. He looked at me, not understanding what I wanted. “In school, children are taught to read,” he said. “Yes,” I replied, “but they don’t read.” I explained the difference between knowing how to read and actually reading, between deciphering street signs and accessing the literary canon. He wondered what the point of the students’ reading “Don Quixote” was. He said we needed to teach them to read the newspaper.

Because if they read thought-provoking novels, they won’t be able to read the newspaper? We should limit them to only achieving the baseline?


And then this:

When my daughter was 15, her literature teacher banished all fiction from her classroom. “We’re going to read history and biology textbooks,” she said, “because that way you’ll read and learn at the same time.”

I’m all for using literacy in the content areas, but throwing out fiction in literature class in favor of textbooks?

There’s learning to read, which is generally what happens in elementary school. Then kids transition to reading to learn, which is what we’re doing when we read textbooks or essays. We take the knowledge someone else has and absorb it by reading.

Then there’s what I’d call reading to create knowledge. I’d say that’s what happens when we read fiction. We can make our own discoveries about human nature, about ourselves, our own understandings about the world. The job of a novelist—as I see it—is not to teach but to explore. The reader explores with us, yet may not discover the same things or arrive at the same destination. That’s why it’s amazing.

This idea that we should only learn things that we’ll definitely, absolutely use in a concrete, practical way mystifies me. As I mentioned a month ago, it’s certainly turned up in my classroom. While I don’t hear students ask what the point of reading novels is (maybe the English teachers get that from the kids who don’t like reading—I have to threaten to take books away from kids who’d rather read than do math), I get it about almost everything else we want them to learn.

My school just sent out a survey last week, and one of the items was to vote on whether we want to institute a mandatory free-reading time next year. Twenty minutes a day, three days a week. No matter the class, everyone will spend those twenty minutes reading, including the teachers, administrators, everyone.

I haven’t had a chance to ask the other math teachers what they think of it. Or the science, art, PE, music, history, and tech teachers.

My vote: Absolutely, yes, without question.

Because the only pointless thing is limiting ourselves to the concrete little nothings. What kind of life is that?

Speak up:


Something is Usually Better Than Nothing

I’m back after a week off from blogging. Last week was mostly spent getting ready for Parent-Teacher Conference, which meant getting tests graded before then. Approximately two hundred of them. Afterwards, I decided some basic test-taking advice was in order. Nothing beats preparation and true understanding, but in the spirit of “something is better than nothing,” these tips could certainly inch scores up a few percentage points.

Read the Instructions
I think teachers have been trying to get all students to do this since written language was invented. Yet some students persist in ignoring them. Thus perfectly capable people lose points because they only gave half of what the problem was looking for.

Use Common Sense
Even if you don’t remember how to do a particular problem, you can at least apply common sense and avoid some obviously wrong tactics. If a problem asks for a distance, don’t give me coordinates for a point. If it asks for an angle, don’t tell me a line. If you’re supposed to justify steps for solving an algebra equation, don’t use geometry postulates and definitions.

Give Me Something … Anything
It’s true that if you write random numbers and such for every question, you’re not going to get any credit for it. But by and large, students who at least attempted something got at least a point for showing a tiny bit of understanding. And that’s more than a student who left pretty much everything blank will get. (A student who thought he didn’t know anything but tried anyway actually did about as well as the class average.)

Take Advantage of Advantages
It continues to boggle my mind that I can give a review with problems mirroring what’s on the test and make the test open-note, yet some students still do miserably. But I know at least part of it. They didn’t bring their notes, or they didn’t take notes in the first place. So they’re automatically at a disadvantage.

The Last Minute is Too Late
I had a student who was frustrated when she got her test back. “I thought I did so well! I even studied!” Her version of studying was coming in after school the day before the test and saying, “Teach me everything.” As in, the whole chapter we’d been studying for the past 3-4 weeks. I did a quick overview of each section, but there was no way she was going to meaningfully absorb it all in a single afternoon. Still, she probably did better than she would’ve if she hadn’t come in at all.

Hopefully I can get some of these messages through before the next test.

Speak up:

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Does It Matter If You Ever Use It, Specifically?

“When are we ever going to use this?”

Every math teacher’s probably heard this at least once, and during some units, at least once a day. (There were years where I never heard it. How I long to go back to teaching that way. But I digress…)

Here’s the answer I’ve taken to giving my students. It’s three-part.

First, you may think right now that you won’t use this specific math concept, or any math other than basic percent calculations with money. You may think you know what career you’ll go into, and it’s not one that involves math even a tiny bit. But when I was your age, I said the very last thing I would be was a teacher. When I passed my AP Calculus exam so my general math requirements for college were taken care of, I said, “Yes! I never have to take math again!”

Moral #1: It doesn’t hurt to keep your options open. The more you learn—in all areas—the more doors you have available to you in the future.

Second, no, most of you will never have to do a geometric proof after finishing high school. You may never factor another quadratic equation after that, either, or sketch another box-and-whisker plot. But how often in life do you need to bench-press a hundred-pound barbell? Rarely if ever? So, why do so many people do weight training? To strengthen muscles so they will be able to use them in various other ways when needed.

Moral #2: Math builds up a part of your brain that might otherwise atrophy. Logical reasoning skills are always useful, and just like Chris Hemsworth’s biceps, they don’t magically appear from nowhere.

Third, why are you asking this in the first place? Are you really concerned with whether this is something you’re going to use specifically in your everyday life? I’m pretty sure if you isolate specific tasks in most of your other classes, you’ll find they don’t mirror the activities of most adults. (I promise I haven’t written a five-paragraph essay since high school.) I think you’re really asking because I’m presenting you with something that isn’t instantly easy for you. Your instinct, therefore, is to avoid something that requires effort unless you can see a direct need for doing it.

Moral #3: There is value in struggling. Many things are only worth the effort they require, making easy things pretty worthless. As for the direct need for doing it, see Moral #2.

This is a little ranty, but there’s been a silver lining to these conversations lately. I rarely get through more than a sentence or two of one of my reasons before another student in the class pipes up with why they think it’s important for them to learn the concept, even if it isn’t obviously applicable to “real life.”

Bless those long-sighted teenagers.

P.S. To be fair, I also have some students who ask the same question, but in a different way. They sincerely want to know the applications of a particular mathematical concept, because they like to see the bigger picture, to get an idea of how it’s all connected. And that’s always a question I’m happy to answer.

Speak up:


Age is Relative

I already knew our perception of age is relative. When you’re five, a 16-year-old is practically as old as your parents. When you’re thirty, that same 16-year-old may seem like barely more than a tiny child.

I also knew age differences are relative. An eight-year difference is huge between a 12-year-old and a 20-year-old. But between people who are 72 and 80? Not so much.

Here’s a new one I just noticed, though. The context and timing of when I met a person affects how I think of their relative age from then on. A 24-year-old I met fairly recently will fall into my mental category of “around my age.” (I know they’re younger than I am. I said “around.”) They’re definitely adults.

Then there are the people I taught my first year. They’re all around 24 now. But when I taught them—when I met them—they were 8th graders. (That means they were 13- to 14-year-olds.) Those are forever stuck in my category of “definitely younger than I am.”

It doesn’t mean I treat them like kids when I see them now. On the contrary, I’ve reconnected with a couple and definitely see them as adults I can treat as equals. But they are younger.

Similarly, people who were already adults when I met them as a little kid are solidly “older.” But I could meet someone that same age—say, pushing 50—right now and they still might fall into the “around my age” category.

It’s all about context.

Not like it’s a big deal, but one of the weird things about perception.

Lynn Phillips should be happy. This means she’s forever young. At least to me.

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