The Pretty Circle, part one

“Would you guys mind if I stalled the math lesson a little?”

No one objected so I cued up this video. You’ve seen it before.

As it ran, a few kids glanced back at me, but, not wanting to cue their first reaction, I kept a blank face. It stopped and I asked for their thoughts.

The kids ragged on her a bit, as nearly all of us did in the weeks since the Miss Teen USA pageant. My first contribution to the discussion was to point out the exact moment the “meltdown” began, moving frame-by-frame to the point her eyelids first fluttered, to where she looks first stunned and very pitiable, as if Aimee Teegarden, the high schooler asking the question, had whacked her across the face with a brick.

I said, “I think there’s something serious here and I hope you’ll bear with me for a moment.”

I drew a circle on the board and said, “All her life, Miss South Carolina has been in this circle. This circle is called … ” and I wrote inside the circle, “P-R-E-T-T-Y.”

“She knows she’s in the pretty circle; her family and her friends have told her she’s in the pretty circle; she goes in front of large audiences – the entire state at one point – and they’ve told her she’s in the pretty circle.”

“She has become very comfortable inside the pretty circle.

“Now I’m gonna draw another circle,” I said, but first wrote the word “S-M-A-R-T” down on the board.

I asked, “How much does the SMART circle overlap the PRETTY circle?”

Several students yelled out, “Not at all!” to which I replied, “Well it’s gotta overlap somewhere ,” and gestured at my own body.

“But you’re right,” I said. “It doesn’t overlap much.”

“There are other circles, too,” I said, and drew bubbles for ATHLETIC, ARTISTIC, FUNNY, NICE, and SOCIAL. “Sometimes they overlap a lot. Sometimes they only overlap a little.”

“The point, guys, is that we are all born and pushed into one circle, and that circle either becomes our start or our grave.”

“We all feel comfortable in one of these. If you’re me, you felt great in the SMART circle. You’ve just come off eight years homeschooling and you can learn anything on your own. It’s safe and easy in SMART and you don’t much feel like leaving.”

“But if you stay in a circle just because it’s comfortable you become like Miss South Carolina. Miss South Carolina’s biggest fault here is not that she’s dumb.

It’s that she’s boring.

“If you venture outside of where you are comfortable, if you pull a few of those smaller circles in towards your larger, comfortable circle, maybe making yourself both pretty and a little smart or nice and a little social, you make yourself the opposite of Miss South Carolina: you become someone that other people want to know.

How we spun an hour of math outta that sermon is the subject for another post.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. Miss South Dakota

    October 9, 2007 - 9:47 am -


    I am here to defend my fellow Southerner. First of all, ALL of those questions are dumb questions. What Miss SC really wanted to say was

    “Us Americans can’t find America on a map because us Americans RULE! We freakin’ own the whole damn world! Also, who has time to learn a map? I mean what does map reading have to do with going to starbucks? What does map reading have to do with building a new shopping mall in suburbia? What does reading a map have to do with buying a house, a car, a flat screeen TV and getting into massive credit card debt?… [then you throw down the mike and walk away getting the entire crowd to chant ‘usa-usa-usa-usa”]

    ANOTHER answer (and this one is equally good) is that “Americans are the most arrogant, self-centered, ugliest people in the world! We don’t care about anything else but going to Wal-Mart and buying some Chinese made crap! THAT’S WHY THOSE PEOPLE FLEW PLANES INTO OUR BUILDINGS SIX YEARS AGO!! [then you throw your mike down and walk away].


    I agree with the whole circle thing. I mean, that is human nature I guess. We find our secure “safe spot” and we stick to it. Now, on the other end how many times to WE ALL AS PEOPLE label others and put them into a circle of our choosing? I think you just did that with labeling Miss South Carolina “boring”. Anyone could look at you as boring, Dan. I mean 20-something, cocky, know-it-all, “I’m the best teacher in the world because I am young and I understand teenagers best and all 99% of teachers over the age of 40 should retire and move into an old-peoples home so I can change the world, and if only the world was a beautiful as I am” newbie teachers are a dime a dozen. EVERY school in America has a teacher just like you.
    Also, I believe Buddhism teaches that if we find someone (or something) boring, it is not it or them that are boring, IT IS US! Buddhism stresses that if we are ever bored WE NEED TO STOP BEING BORING.

    There was some TV show a while back, back in the 80’s I think. In the show the host would randomly pick a town/city to go. Then he would get to that town and randomly pick a name out of the phone book. He would then proceed to interview him/her and do a story about their life. The point of the story was just that. Everyone has a story.

    Yes, Miss SC blew the question. She really should have practiced it. I mean she had to have known that a question would be asked about a current events issue. Health Care, Education, Homelessness, Energy etc. She should have had a cookie cutter offend nobody answer lined up. She didn’t. Maybe she didn’t really care. Who knows. I can’t read her mind. Maybe it is you (and 500 million others) that should be made fun of for making a big deal about her really bad answer. It seems so many people are so giddy at this young womans (I almost want to put down girl) misfortune. It doesn’t make me feel any better that she slipped up. I didn’t stand up and cheer and yell out, “YES! THIS BITCH MAY BE PRETTY, BUT SHE’S DUMB!!! WOO-HOO!!!!”.

    One last story (then I quit I promise). When I was in college I took a US History class. We had midterms. I can’t remember what the essay questions was, but I thought. No, I was certain I nailed it! “Yes, I am getting an ‘A'” I told my roommate afterwards.
    Well, just before the prof handed back the tests she told us just how bad the class did. Then she said, “And one of you seemed to not know the difference between Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt!!!”. I said to myself, “Who is that dumb”. Well, you guessed it, it was me. I couldn’t believe myself. How could I be that stupid. OF COURSE I knew Teddy Roosevelt wasn’t our prez during WW II. I was then upset at the prof. I thought she should have known it was a bone-headed slip of the mind that occured due to being nervous.
    What’s funny is that this teacher a few weeks later kept calling Linda Brown (of Brown vs. Board of Education fame) LOUISE Brown. The person sitting next to me would look at each other and say, “uh, yeah, it’s LINDA!”. I knew she knew the difference. She slipped up. No biggie.

    Enough of my rant. Just to recap:

    I liked your lesson to your class.

    Everyone screws up now and then.

    No, she’s not boring it’s YOU (according to Buddha not me)

    Maybe if you got to know Miss SC better you would find her a neat young lady.

    Just you put her in a cookie cutter mold, others may describe you similiary (not as a blond model, but as a “If only the world was as beautiful as I am” do-gooder teacher).

    Don’t worry. By the time you are 35 that will change. Chances are, you will be too busy with (in NO PARTICULAR ORDER) kids, a wife, a mortgage, car note, chores around the house, etc. to be bothered with labels for yourself and others.

    Keep the peace!

  2. WOW. Dan, if it makes you feel any better, I’m over 35 and busy with that stuff, and I think what you did with your kids was an awesome lesson. Get them thinking, that’s the whole point.

  3. I think she’s a lovely example of why kids should be wary of not thinking. I see little kids that have no idea why they are in school or what knowing more will do for them. None. Their parents describe school as “their job” and they treat it exactly like the no-prestige, horrible pay job it would be.

    So, I think it’s lovely to explain to kids that being better-rounded, stepping out of our comfort zone, being smart and interested is a good thing, whether they’re 7 or 17.

    And I’m old too, just like the other poster. ;-D

  4. I like the circle thing. I saw quite a few teachers here doing similar things (none as eloquently, but I admired the effort) on the first day of school as I made the rounds.

  5. Weak.

    You’re making my state look bad. I promise, there are some of us who are both smart and pretty.

    One day maybe I’ll be one of them.

    Ahh, South Carolina. A good state with a low cost of living, and one heck of a good educational system!


  6. Regarding Miss SD…
    Maybe this is just semantics, but I think it’s truly a reach to say that Dan is boring. I’m surprised to hear that from someone who reads his entries. To say that (and the other personal attacks) has to me the appearance of pettiness and poor backing of your argument.

    Also, I think his point was not in saying that he was “bored by her” or that she has a boring life story so much as that what she has to contribute to conversations about things in other circles, such as politics, could be considered “boring”, having not had to move outside her comfort zone (or circle) and learn how to think about such things.

    I thought it was evident from when that video first started circulating that the problem with Miss South Carolina was not that she is dumb or actually thinks that the country is called “The Iraq”. Seemed to me like a severe case of a deer in the headlights, where she lost track of anything she’d been saying and what the original question was, and she deteriorated into speaking stored cliche pageant phrases stuck in her head. I think that was the origin of her train wreck of an answer, and whether or not she actually has significant input on the question of finding the US on a map (which admittedly, after her response on the Today show, is unlikely) was hardly relevant or determinable in her on-air response.

  7. Angela: Yeah? Well at least I’m not ugly!
    Ricky: Yes you are, and you’re boring and totally ordinary and you know it.

    This post made me think of that movie.

    Now I’m curious about part 2. Venn diagrams? Finding the area under a curve?

    On another note, remind me never to ask for Miss SD’s aid in understanding the tipitaka.

  8. hey i think this is a great lesson dan. as a non-math teacher i must admit i am not horribly interested in how you connected this to math…i suppose i will be intrigued just to see how you managed to connect the two.

    but since i get to spend lots of time with my homeroom group (~200 minutes a week in total is in the timetable for various kinds of tutorials / small groups / moral education), i’m totally going to steal this sermonette.



  9. There’s a lot of tedious nonsense coming out of South Dakota (I mean, no matter how many times it gets quoted back to me, I can’t find that post where I declared war on veteran teachers) but at least one or two points worth taking up.

    Out of five classes, one student took offense at the sermon and the proceeding exercise (which I’ll get to next post) for reasons alleged in the first comment above: it boxes people in. Circles them in, actually.

    The student felt as if I was stereotyping her, typecasting her, pushing her onto my playing field of circles, and forcing her to choose one.

    How I re-framed the thing then and how I’m re-framing it now is that everyone is a mixture of what’s likely an infinite number of positive circles, each differing in influence.

    What made this thing kind of precious in a class of adolescents (for whom the idea of defining oneself is a terrifying preoccupation) is that we defined negatives (like being ugly) as merely the absence of a positive (your home circle isn’t the pretty one). What made this precious for me as a teacher (who is trying to develop a relationship with my students) is that I didn’t elevate one circle above another. Even while discussing Miss South Carolina, I described her singleminded preoccupation with beauty in the same cautionary tone I did the really bright kid who focused on the smart circle at the expense of every other.

    They’re both boring.

    SD’s allegation that I’m somehow boring for calling Ms. SC boring is almost too pedantic to address but in case I’ve confused anyone else: I agree. If you find Ms. SC boring, which is to say, completely uninteresting, that’s good evidence you are uninteresting yourself.

    Given the minutes and words I’ve given her both here and in my classroom, I’d like to believe my fascination with her is beyond question.

    It’s true, though, that outside the cautionary tale she offers me and my students, I find her far less interesting than other people who’ve strengthened their presence in circles outside the one in which they’re most comfortable.

    By “don’t be boring, kids,” I meant, “be more interesting, kids.” My bad. Retractions have been issued. All blog posts past, present, and future have been updated to reflect the new, pedantic wording. And in case I’ve intimidated or unsettled any other veteran teachers as I have Miss South Dakota here, please consider my standing offer of a hug. Redeemable whenever. No cash value.

  10. “how I’m re-framing it now is that everyone is a mixture of what’s likely an infinite number of positive circles”

    Indeed, though I’d either scrap the “positive” part or add “and negative”.

    Though at any given moment it would be fair to say that I’m, e.g., “smart”, “funny”, or “nice”, I’m also “rude”, “malicious”, and “cocky”.

    Of course, I see the latter traits come up less often as I grow older, but I can’t/won’t deny their existence. Sometimes it’s good to expose to the younger folk their obnoxious side as well (if possible)… all the while putting such an objective spin on it that they don’t walk away feeling all guilty either. It’s OK to be an ass so long as one is aware of it. If aware, one is actively solving the problem the instant it arises. If we’re not aware, we’re not learning about ourselves. If we’re not aware, then we might as well be in one big circle called “ignorant” making all other circles relatively irrelevant.

  11. I can’t believe it. I stopped my math 10 class and did virtually the same thing. I think we’ll revisit and add your “sermon” Brilliant.

  12. Good stuff, Dan. I hate to say it, but your kids will retain this talk far longer than they will retain solving the quadratic equation. (Do you guys even solve the quadratic equation any more, or do you just have MySpace do it for you? Sheesh, it’s been like 23 years since I was in high school math).

    Anyway, good topic for an off-topic discussion.

  13. That’s exactly it. I love the fact that you went completely off-topic. Now that I have a better relationship with my students, I can have these kind of talks. Good show …

  14. I couldn’t agree with you more, Dan. Being in one circle is boring — for the people around you but also for yourself. Finding a way to reach teens with that idea is fantastic.

  15. Ok, here’s a weird coincidence.

    I used Miss Teen South Carolina on the first day of school in a World Studies class. I first showed a picture of her, in her civies at a baseball game, sans crown and make-up. After asking the students to write down adjectives that describe their impression of her, I showed them picture of Jennifer Lin to do the same. They did not recognize the beauty pageant queen and of course did not recognize the piano prodigy.

    We got into an interesting discussion about the comparisons of the words used to describe a bright-eyed blonde at a baseball game and a bright-eyed asian girl sitting at a piano. The practically all-white class could not believe that these people were almost the same age. Why was one “happy” and the other “serious”? What makes one “energetic”, but the other “patient”?

    Then we went on to test these first impressions by listening to the public embarrassment of the geography answer, then listening to Jennifer at TED Talks take five notes at random and organize a absolutely awe-inspiring composition off the top of her head.

    When you look at someone, you begin putting them into a circle without really knowing if that circle is where they belong.

    Next year, I’ll add the circles – thanks Dan

  16. Hey Dan,

    You are one of the teachers who realizes the bigger picture in education. We can create moments where we address the child instead of the content. I hear others voicing concerns about stereotypes, but this young woman has made a life of entering and winning beauty pageants. The proof is not in her words, but in her actions.

    This fact aside, you gave your kids permission to step out of the circles they are rooted in within their lives. The act of making yourself vulnerable in hope of better understanding the world around you is both liberating and frightening, yet you have clearly created a safe place for this to happen in your classroom.

    Keep up the good fight! You are changing lives in that classroom of yours.

  17. Nice idea.

    The overlaps get hard, especially if you go for “just a little” or “quite a bit.” And not all of us get to the top of the board quite so easily…

  18. Dear Dan,
    I just wanted to comment on your criticism of Miss South Carolina Teen USA. Her name is Lauren Caitlin Upton, and she’s 18 years old.
    I feel that you have no right to declare a person dumb, boring, and someone other people would not want to know based on a 48 second video tape.
    Additionally, I also have a major problem with you holding her up to ridicule in front of your students considering how little she did. There certainly are other people, both living and dead, who were and are far, far more deserving of this treatment. One person that comes to mind is that unspeakable tyrant, Adolf Hitler.
    To Ms. Upton’s credit, she has owned her mistake, and she didn’t run away from it. She didn’t declare herself as a victim, and she has shown a remarkable ability to laugh at herself.
    She has also gotten up after she’s been knocked down, and there’s nothing more American than that. I feel that your students could learn positive and valuble lessons from her. I, therefore, ask you to allow Ms. Upton to be a part of the solution rather than dismiss her as part of the problem.
    President Bush has said enough malapropisms to cover a 365 day calendar. When we have elected such a person to our nation’s highest office twice, what business do we have laughing at a scared teenage girl?
    In the past few months, we have witnessed the antics of Mel Gibson, Don Imus, Michael Vick, Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, Brittany Spears, Senator Larry Craig, and astronaut Lisa Nowak. All of these people are substantially over the age of 18, and all of them are either guilty of or are accused of wrongdoing far greater than what Ms. Upton did. Yet, it is she who you chose to pick apart.
    Every day, Americans smoke, drink, use drugs, deal drugs, abuse children and the elderly, gamble, overspend, overeat, lie, cheat, steal, and kill. For the life of me, I cannot understand why you and everybody else would have this young woman be the national monument to stupidity.
    Yours truly,

    David Jordan

    P.S. Please write me back.

  19. You give me too much credit for the national conspiracy against Lauren Caitlin Upton, particularly in your last line. Me, I gave her a light upbraiding both here and in my class and only in a what-can-we-learn-from-this? kind of way. She made a mistake. I don’t see why her youth, or the fact that she isn’t as awful as Hitler or Larry Craig disqualifies me or my students from learning from her.

    I’ll agree, though, that as much as I ponder the question, “What shouldn’t my students become?”, child abusers, murderers, and Adolf Hitler, concern me more than poor Lauren Caitlin Upton. But, David, I’m unimpressed by the risk of my kids turning into Hitler and they would be likewise unimpressed by my admonishments not to (pick one) kill people, abuse children, do drugs, or become Adolf Hitler. It’s not on any of their horizons.

    What is on their horizons, whether they or you realize it, is the temptation to tuck into the safest circle the world offers them and never leave.

    Maybe Lauren Caitlin Upton is a brilliant, multi-faceted individual who caved under pressure like any of us might. I don’t know and it doesn’t matter much. Miss South Carolina, as my class and I know her through those forty-eight seconds of video, offered up a valuable lesson, one which I couldn’t throw away.

  20. Great lesson Dan!

    Keep up the good work!

    Are your administrators aware of what you are doing? If they are at all progressive, toot your own horn at them so they see what is happening in your classroom. Good PR goes a long way to advancing your own career and maybe improving education in other classrooms and schools.