Mr. Nixon et al.

There was a calculus teacher at my old school who'd apparently get so animated that he had to keep the windows open…in New York February. When a student would finally a-ha on some finer intricacy of differentiation, he'd loosen his collar and bounce around the room beaming, Yes, yes! Do you see that? Isn't it beautiful?!

Anyone who’s taught knows a couple things already: one, Mr. Nixon is rare.  Two, he was definitely not a first-year teacher.  Teaching isn’t rocket science.  It’s harder. NASA never had to call home because the Mars rovers were off-task, and if you think managing a robot from 100 million miles away is hard, try teaching the Pythagorean Theorem to 33 thirteen year-olds at 8:14 on a rainy Monday morning.  (Try it at 1:45 on a sunny Thursday afternoon.  It won’t matter.  Try it when you’re six months out of college and still on the sugar rush of I’m going to make the world smarter!, and Cape Canaveral starts looking like summer camp).

Teaching is hard.  I don’t have kids, so teaching five sections of 8th grade math is the most difficult thing I’ve ever done.  In accordance with the stereotype, it’s also the most rewarding…but also, at times, the most maddening.  Where’s your pencil?  You don’t have a pencil?  When you got on the bus this morning, where did you think you were going? (Anyone who was relying on their Netflix queue for a sugarplum fairy vision of education, sorry to burst your bubble).

Maybe the teachers in Stand and Deliver or Dangerous Minds exist, but I've never actually witnessed a superhero swoop into a classroom and with one masterfully delivered speech inspire their students to become Einstein or Dickinson, and in 99 minutes no less.  Like I said, teaching is hard.

And teaching math is especially hard.  We live in a society where it’s perfectly acceptable to say, “I don’t do math,” even though you'd get laughed at of the room for saying "I don't do reading."  According to a 2009 Raytheon study, 50% of middle school students responded that they’d rather take out of the garbage than do their math homework.  For them, math isn’t just a chore.  It’s worse.

So what’s the deal?  Why do people hate math so much?

A lot of it has to do with how we define it.  What is math?  Is it a set of skills that Pythagoras tinkered with and Euclid later codified: a disparate set of facts and equations that we’re force-fed and asked to regurgitate in the spring? Step one: find the slope (m) using “rise over run.”  Step two: multiply the slope by one of the x-coordinates, and subtract the product from the corresponding y-coordinate to get the y-intercept (b).  Step three: combine these into the equation of the line: y = mx + b. Is that math?  If so, then it makes sense that kids prefer garbage.  Trash may stink, but at least it makes sense!

Fortunately, that’s not math.  Grammar rules are not the same as language.  Following a recipe is not cooking.  So what is math?  Simple: math is a tool that we humans invented to answer questions:

  • How big is the universe?  (Geometry)
  • What’s the best cell phone plan?  (Linear functions)
  • If I wait a year to buy an iPad on eBay, how much will it cost?  (Exponential decay)
  • Do people with small feet pay more for shoes, and should Nike charge by weight?  (Ratios & proportions)

Like a microscope and hammer, math is a tool.  And like astronomy and carpentry, it first requires something to look at, something to build.  Teaching math requires questions, and Mathalicious exists to help teachers ask them.  Mathalicious exists to provide teachers with real-world lessons to engage their students, real-world contexts that make the learning of math—the mastery of mathematics—possible.  We don’t need fake contexts like those found in most textbooks.  The real world is real enough.  When a student asks “When will I ever use this?”, a teacher should be able to respond, “Now.”

Teaching is hard.  It’s good that it is, for there would be no virtue in it otherwise.  It’s grueling, unromantic.  Real teachers don’t have a wardrobe assistant or make-up crew.  They don’t win Oscars for playing themselves.  Real teachers start early, stay late.  They deal with broken copiers and transparencies and three preps and a 15-minute lunch and five sections of 33 students, calls home and a new online grading system that keeps crashing and a mandatory assembly the day before the final exam.  They have students who won’t stop talking and students who won’t start, a principal who needs them to cover third period study hall, test-prep and standardized tests and 100 textbooks for 102 students and those desks that make it really, really hard to do group work.  Real teachers get their hands dirty, and if they use Expo markers, they get their hands really dirty.

Real teachers.  That’s who Mathalicious is for.  It’s for Carlos and Alyssa, Molly and Brad and Anne.  It’s for Mr. Rumppe and Mr. Cooney, who stays at school until 7pm organizing special ed binders and keeps a fish tank in his room because it helps his students concentrate.  It’s for Mr. E who does robotics on Saturday; Mr. Dass, who does number theory at 7:30am.  It’s for Randy who raps doors in east Nashville to make sure his Kippsters are where they need to be, and Mr. Saum who told me in my first year of teaching that it’s the kids who should be tired after school.  The kids.  Word.

I didn't start Mathalicious because I was an awesome teacher.  I started Mathalicious because I wasn't.

Teaching is hard.  It should be.  It should also be fun.  Making the planet smarter should be fun, so let’s make that happen.  Let's do this.

2 thoughts on “Mr. Nixon et al.”

  1. I love this!

    Teaching IS hard! And it's only the best teachers that are constantly looking for new ways to incorporate new ideas in order to keep their students engaged and on task and EXCITED about coming to class and learning something, anything! I'm interested to have a full class discussion with my class and figure out WHY they don't like math--Is it because it's just a senseless algorithm that they just can't memorize and feel dumb for it? Is it because they have had "bad" teachers? If so, what makes them bad? How can I become better and inspire them to give it a shot?!

  2. I like your ideas about finding those instances in our lives that show students math concepts in an interesting and real way. I think if teachers are honest and reflective, we see that everyday we can all improve something.

    At our school we are trying to change our students' ideas that math is something they should fear or hate. We did an all school celebration on Pi Day. Here is the link to our video
    Thanks for your words!

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