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!”

Can We Model Generosity With Mathematics?

four celebrities and their donations – hemsworth $1000000, mariam (hs student) - 75, British Petroleum - $700000, Jeff Bezos – $700000

I posted that image on Twitter last week, asking:

Which of these bushfire relief donors was the most generous? What’s your ranking? What information matters here? What would your students say?

Some teachers quickly identified a connection to ratios.

Meanwhile, Lee Melvin Peralta critiqued ratios as too limited to fully model generosity.

I tend to side with George Box here, who wrote:

All models are wrong, but some are useful.

Anyone who thinks that proportional functions fully describe runners in a race, or that linear functions fully describe the height of a stack of cups, or that quadratic functions fully describe the height of objects under gravity, or that ratios fully describe generosity is, of course, kidding themselves.

But those models are all useful. Ratios are a useful way to think about generosity.

Emily Atkin originally stirred this question up for me in her fantastic climate change newsletter:

Chevron’s donation is paltry, however, given its earnings and relative contribution to the climate crisis. Not only is Chevron the second-largest historical emitter of all the 90 companies, it also earned about $15 billion in 2018. So a $1 million donation amounts to about .00667 of its yearly earnings. To the average American, that donation would amount to about $3.96.

So Atkin is evaluating generosity as ratio of net worth/earnings to donation size. But then she also considers the donor’s contribution to climate change.

The model is complex and grows more complex!

One teacher wanted to add fame and notoriety to our model, something Chris Hemsworth donates that Mariam might not. (Maybe she’s a TikTok teen, though. We can only speculate.) I talked with someone who lives in Australia about this question, and she said Hemsworth is less generous than someone from another country donating the same amount because of his identity as an Australian citizen. Robyn V wondered how to evaluate time donations, and even the donation of one’s life.

So ratios aren’t a perfect model for generosity, but they do offer us an important insight that, under some circumstances, someone who donates $75 is more generous than someone who donates one million dollars, which one teacher noted is a quantity that is really hard for students to fathom!

One teacher preparation program asked the question:


If the ambiguity of the original question strikes you as anything other than a feature, then please don’t risk the conversation.

If you go into the conversation presupposing a model for generosity rather than admitting to yourself in advance that all the models are broken, you’re likely to diminish students who suggest variables you had already excluded.

Okay, yes, um, ‘whether or not someone lives in Australia.’ Okay, that’s one idea, but can I get some other ideas, please? Perhaps ones more related to the math we’ve been studying?

All of these models are complex. All of them are certainly broken. And all of them offer you the opportunity to celebrate and build on your students’ curiosity and contextual knowledge, an experience that is all too rare for students in math class.

BTW: Shout out to Christelle Rocha for her observation that individual generosity is no way to solve the climate crisis.

Desmos Is Also a Curriculum Company Now

If you knew me as a classroom teacher, you knew I was very, very cranky about the ways many math textbooks treated students and mathematics, how they failed to celebrate and build on student intuition about mathematical ideas, how their problems were posed in ways that hid their most interesting elements, how they were way too helpful.

So it’s been a joy to get to do something more active about that problem than write cranky blog posts, to get to team up with some fantastic teachers, designers, engineers, and funders all continuously interrogating their assumptions about education, design, technology, math, and society, all to create what I think is …

the very best middle school math curriculum.

This is it.

Call off the search.

You found it.

Read more about the curriculum at the Des-blog, including details about our upcoming pilot.

[extremely Oprah voice] You get a debt of gratitude! You get a debt of gratitude! You get a debt of gratitude!

Aside from my enormous gratitude to the fantastic team I work with daily, I’m especially grateful to two groups:

  • The authoring / publishing team at Illustrative Mathematics / Open Up Resources who created and openly licensed a fantastic math curriculum, one which is the foundation of our own work. They dropped a massive gift on the math education community (or a hydrogen bomb from the perspective of the K-12 math publishing industry) and we were extremely happy to pick it up and build on it.
  • You. I’m talking about the folks who have been reading this blog, commenting on my posts, critiquing my ideas from day one. Your thoughts and mine are all tied together and run all the way through this curriculum.

This blog has been quieter over the last few years for reasons that are predictable – family, Twitter, the death of blogs, etc. – but also because, for the only time in my career, I haven’t been able to write about my work.

That changes today and I’m very excited to collaborate with you folks once again on the work that matters to me most. It won’t be at its best without you.

2020 Resolutions

Meanwhile, Nepantla Teachers, a group of math educators focused on social justice in their work, asked several educators to contribute a resolution for the new year. Here’s mine:

I'm resolving to spend as much time next year thinking about student lives outside of school as I do their lives inside of school. Teaching and curriculum have enormous influence on student learning but the influence of those in-school factors is dwarfed by out-of-school factors like housing and food security. So I'm resolving to practice humanizing pedagogies and to protest school closures in my city, to create interesting mathematical activities and to urge my representatives to protect and expand social programs. I'm resolving to ignore the distinction between educator and citizen. 

Click through to read resolutions from thoughtful people like Carl Oliver, Hema Khodai, Idil Abdulkadir, Marian Dingle, Makeda Brome, and Tyrone Martinez-Black.