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Teachers Decide What’s Money

“Feel free to answer like a seventh grader,” I told teachers as I led them through one of the lessons from our Middle School Math Curriculum.

A printer prints out a scaled copy of a shape on an iPad.

The question about those images was, “What stays the same? What changes?” And people did not answer like seventh graders.

A response that has a lot of formal mathematical language.

Instead, there was lots of discussion around proportionality, congruency, ratios, and other attributes of the shapes that are going to be one million miles from the minds of seventh graders in school right now.

But several teachers took me up on my offer and answered a little bit like children. I snapshotted them, paused the class, and presented them.

A response that cites the color of the scaled shape.

Things they told me that stay the same:

  • The shape, the angles, the color, the orientation
  • The color and the angle of the vertices
  • The color and the paper size are the same
  • The shape and the color
  • Shape, color, orientation, centered on paper

“I love that you folks are finding patterns, noticing similarities, deciding what varies and doesn’t vary—including color!—using your eyes, your vision, your senses. That’s math!”

I read them an excerpt from Rochelle Gutierrez which is on my mind a lot these days.

A more rehumanized mathematics would depart from a purely logical perspective and invite students to draw upon other parts of themselves (e.g., voice, vision, touch, intuition).

By naming those responses “mathematics,” I turned them into money.

As a society, we decided long ago that certain pieces of paper had value—that they’re money. In much the same way, you are the central bank of your own classroom and you decide which student ideas are money. You decide which of them have value and, by extension, you influence a student’s sense of their own value.

I’m not hypothesizing here! Watch what happened with the teachers. On the very next screen in our lesson, we ask students to describe how this printer is broken.

A printer prints out an unscaled scaled copy of a shape on an iPad.

Teachers clearly received my signal about what kind of mathematics was valuable.

A response: "My shape is drunk."

They brought metaphors, imagery, and analogies that I don’t think they would have brought if I only praised deductive, formal, and precise definitions.

  • My shape is drunk
  • The lines do not stay straight…they are wobbly
  • My pacman lines are no longer straight. The new figure looks droopy and sad.
  • It got curvy, kind of sexy looking

The ability to decide what’s money is a lot of power! In this time of distance teaching, you have fewer ways to broadcast value to students than you would if you were in the same room together. But I’m so encouraged to see teachers using chat rooms, breakout groups, video responses, written feedback, snapshot summaries, whatever they can, to enrich as many students in their classes as possible.

I Hate Wine Tasting Like Some Students Hate Math Class

I live adjacent to the Northern California wine country, which makes wine tasting a fairly affordable and semi-regular kind of outing. (Pre-quar, of course.) But wine tasting makes me anxious and sweaty in ways that help me relate to students who hate math class.

  • There’s a sharp division between who is considered an expert and a novice, and an obsession with status (there are four levels of sommelier!) that’s only exceeded by some religious orders.
  • Experts seem to have very little interest in the intuitions and evolving understandings that novices bring to the tasting room. (What you’re supposed to be experiencing – the answer key – is written right there on the tasting menu!)
  • The whole thing is arbitrary in ways that we’re all supposed to pretend we don’t notice. (In math: the order of operations, the names of concepts, the y-axis is vertical, etc. In wine: the relationship between price and appreciation.)

I basically only enjoy tasting with a friend of mine, Michael Kanbergs, who is the man at Mt. Tabor Fine Wines in Portland, OR, if you’re local. He has expert-level knowledge about wine and enthusiasm to match but is allergic to most ordering forces in the world, including the expert / novice distinction. So he wants to share with you his favorite wines but he’s hesitant to offer his own perception too early because that’d undermine his curiosity about how you’re perceiving the wine.

I’m grateful to Michael for modeling good teaching, and grateful to other wine experts for helping me empathize a little better with math students who might find me and my habits alienating in similar ways.

Math Has Prepared Me Poorly for This Pandemic

Here are two representations of the horror of this pandemic.

First, a graph of coronavirus deaths in Italy.

Graph of Coronavirus deaths in Italy.

Second, the obituary page of a newspaper in the Italian city of Bergamo, first from February 9 and later from March 13.

Both of these are only representations of this pandemic. They point at its horror, but they aren’t the horror itself. They reveal and conceal different aspects of the horror.

For example, I can take the second derivative of the graph of deaths and notice that while the deaths are increasing every day, the rate of increase is decreasing. The situation is getting worse, but the getting worse-ness is slowing down.

I cannot take the second derivative of an obituary page.

But the graph anesthetizes me to the horror of this pandemic in a way that the obituaries do not. The graph takes individual people and turns them into groups of people and turns those groups of people and their suffering into columns on a screen or page.

Meanwhile, the obituaries put in the foreground the people, their suffering, and their bereaved.

Math has prepared me poorly for this pandemic—or at least a particular kind of math, the kind that sees mass death as an opportunity to work with graphs and derivatives.

For students, it has never been more necessary to move flexibly and quickly between concrete and abstract representations—to acquire the power of the graph without becoming anesthetized to the horror that’s represented much more poignantly by the obituaries.

For teachers, there has never been a more important time to look at points, graphs, tables, equations, and numbers, and to ask students, “What does this mean?” and particularly now, “Who is this?”

BTW

Two relevant quotes here.

  • “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” Commonly attributed to Joseph Stalin.
  • “Statistics are human beings with the tears wiped off.” Paul Brodeur, quoted in Mukherjee’s Emperor of all Maladies.

2020 Apr 10

Another example. It’s one thing to see a graph of unemployment, and another to see the lines for the food bank.

2020 May 25

We’re Only Getting Out of This Together

Desmos closed its San Francisco office on March 9, about a week before the surrounding county issued a “shelter-in-place” warning. When it became clear that our local school systems were going to close, we assembled a small team of people from across our company to figure out how we could support educators during a period of school closure that has no precedent in our lifetimes.

I ran webinars for teachers on Saturday and Sunday. (Check out the recording.) Approximately 600 people showed up and all of us were clearly looking for more than tips, tricks, or resources for distance teaching.

I told the attendees I figured that, because they were attending a webinar on the weekend, they were probably teachers who held their teaching to a very high standard. But now isn’t the time for high standards for teaching, I said. I referred to Rebecca Barrett-Fox’s fantastic essay, “Please do a bad job of putting your courses online.

… your class is not the highest priority of their or your life right now. Release yourself from high expectations right now, because that’s the best way to help your students learn.

I also mentioned Barrett-Fox’s admonition not to pick up new tools right now:

Also: If you are getting sucked into the pedagogy of online learning or just now discovering that there are some pretty awesome tools out there to support student online, stop. Stop now. Ask yourself: Do I really care about this?

You and I are likely receiving the same emails from ed-tech companies, ones that cloak in generosity their excitement to expand their user base, offering services for free they’ll charge for later. In our webinar I explicitly released the group from any expectation that they would learn Desmos as a beginner right now. Now is likely not the time. (It’s probably also worth pointing out that we’ve committed to never charging later for anything we make free now.)

But I told the attendees I had two hopes for their teaching during this time. That they would:

  1. Give students something interesting to think about. Hopefully mathematical, but maybe not. Hopefully towards grade-level objectives, but let’s be realistic about the stresses faced by students, teachers, and parents here. (Remembering also how many people cross more than one of those categories.)
  2. Make connections. I encouraged the group to make connections from teacher to student, from student to student, and from student ideas to other interesting ideas.

As an example, Johanna Langill, a teacher in my hometown of Oakland, CA, assigned her students our Turtle Time Trials activity. Students completed it on their own time, and then she recorded a review of their work, celebrating their early ideas, connecting those ideas to each other, and connecting those ideas to other interesting ideas.

In the week since that webinar, my team has had hundreds of conversations across every digital medium except maybe TikTok. We set up an email address and a hotline where teachers can ask for support, ask questions, or just vent omnidirectionally about how awful their situation is right now.

Our Facebook community is geared full-time towards supporting teachers in school closure. We are running webinars and drop-in office hours every day. We’re delivering new features and new activities specifically supporting distance teaching. We’re collecting all of these efforts at learn.desmos.com/coronavirus.

We’re trying to help teachers adapt to distance teaching, yes, but that’s really a secondary goal. Mainly, we’re trying to sustain community. Everything we’ve built or offered during this last horrible week has been an effort at preserving community between teachers and students, teachers and each other, and if I’ll confess to any selfish motive here, it’s that we’re trying to sustain our own community as well.

I’m convinced that when teachers and students find the other side of this, it won’t be because edtech companies offered junk for free, it’ll be through community, through solidarity across all of our usual divisions and now across divisions of time and space as well.

Like the Spencer Foundation’s Na’ilah Suad Nasir and Megan Bang said in an open letter this weekend:

It may be that social distancing isn’t quite the right frame for what we need right now. We certainly need physical distancing. But we also need to imagine and act from places of social closeness and care.

Teachers are our community and right now we intend to stay as close to them as possible.

But Artichokes Aren’t Pinecones: What Do You Do With Wrong Answers?

I have very small children which means my life is measured by little games and distractions stretched across the day. “What’s that called?” is one of those games. Point at a thing and ask for its name. Do that for another thing. Hey – it’s almost nap time!

So recently we pointed at an artichoke. “What’s that called?”

“Pinecone,” one of the kids says.

a drawing of a pinecone and an artichoke

That’s a factually incorrect answer, which is the same as lots of student answers in math class. But when my kid calls a pinecone an artichoke, I have a very different emotional, physical, and pedagogical response than when a student says something factually incorrect in math class.

With my kid, I am fine with the error. Delighted, even. I am quick to point out all the ways that answer is correct. “Oh! I see why you’d say that. They both have the kind of leafy-looking things. They both have the same-ish shape.”

I find it easy to build connections from their answer to the correct answer. “But an artichoke is greener, larger, and softer. People often eat it and people don’t often eat pinecones.”

However, if I’m teaching a math lesson and a student answers a question about math incorrectly, my reflex is to become …

… evaluative … “What did I just hear? Is it right or wrong?”

… anxious … “Oh no it’s wrong. What do I do now?”

… corrective … “How do I fix this answer and this student?”

I find it much harder to celebrate and build from a student’s incorrect answer in math class than I do an incorrect answer from my kids about artichokes. The net result is that my kids feel valued in ways that the students don’t and my kids have a more productive learning experience than the students.

I can give lots of reasons for my different responses but I’m not sure any of them are any good.

  • This is my kid so I feel warmer towards his early ideas than I do towards ideas from kids I see for only a small part of the day.
  • This kid looks like me so I’m more inclined to think of him as smart and brilliant and wonderful than I am a student with a different race, ethnicity, or gender.
  • The stakes are smaller. What’s the worst consequence of my kid referring to an artichoke as a pinecone? That he doesn’t get invited back to the Governor’s Ball? Who cares. This will work out. I’m not preparing him for an end-of-course exam in thistle-looking stuff.
  • I know the content better. I can build conceptually from a pinecone to an artichoke much more easily than I can build from early math ideas to mature math ideas.

But I find that every aspect of my professional and personal life improves when I try to neutralize those excuses.

  • I am a member of faith and educator communities that help me dissolve my conviction that my kid is more valuable or special than your kid, communities that help me dissolve my sense of separateness from you. We are not separate.
  • I am working with a team to develop experiences in math class that lead to student answers that are really hard to call right or wrong, or ones that at least lead to lots of interesting ways to be right or wrong. I am learning that it’s more helpful to ask a question like, “How are you thinking about this question right now?” than “What is your answer to this question?” because the first question has no wrong answer.
  • I am trying to develop pedagogical tools that make use of differences between student answers to replace ones that try to reconcile or flatten them. Tools like “How are these answers the same and different?” or “For what question would this answer be correct?”
  • I am trying to learn more math more deeply so I can make connections between a student’s early ideas and the later ones they might develop.

I am thinking about this idea from Rochelle Gutierrez more often:

All teaching is identity work, regardless of whether we think about it in that way. We are constantly contributing to the identities that students construct for themselves …

Whether my kid calls an artichoke a pinecone or a student offers an early idea about multiplication, they’re offering something of themselves just as much as they’re offering a fact or a claim. My goal is to celebrate those early ideas and build from them so that students will learn better math, but also so they’ll learn better about themselves.

Featured Comments

Several people mention that we have more time to enjoy our kids and their thinking than we do students in math class.

2020 Jun 13. Other examples of early ideas about language from around my home.

  • “Getting tangled out” a/k/a “getting untangled.”
  • “Yesterday” as a placeholder word for any time in the past.
  • “Foots” and “Gooses” as the plural for “Feet” and “Geese”.
  • Them: What do cows eat? Me: Hay, I think. Them: No, horses eat hay.
  • 6 looks a lot like a lowercase “g”.
  • “After” is any time in the future. Me [beleaguered]: “We’ll do that later, kids.” Kids [combative]: “AFTER!”