It all started with a phone call.
Sarah was a new teacher who had planted herself firmly under my wing and declared I was her mentor, and who was I to tell her no? We spoke regularly as she navigated the complexities of teaching math to middle schoolers. One day in December of 2020, during one of our calls, she stopped and asked, “Can I just vent for a minute?”
She proceeded to tell me about an encounter she’d just had with a colleague who basically questioned the entire purpose of teaching beyond elementary math, going as far as to say, “Honestly, I’ve never used any of the stuff you teach in my adult life, so I don’t even know why we need to teach it.”
I saw red. I fired off the following tweets and went into a PLC meeting, still seething with anger.
My rage is too great to be coherent about this right now BUT WE ARE ABOUT TO HAVE WORDS.— Shelby Strong 💗💜💙 (@Sneffleupagus) December 3, 2020
After I cooled off and chatted with other educators, I wrote a thread explaining how students see and hear everything we say. We never know which little comments, even those meant to be self-deprecating, will stick with students for a lifetime. I’m sure all of us have a memory of something a teacher said that we can’t quite shake, but we don’t always remember to measure our words in front of students.
The thread took off. Folks chimed in from all over with experiences of colleagues, even administrators, making negative comments about math either in front of or directly to students.
Y’all. We can’t do that. Our students deserve better than that.
A short time later, Aviva Levin over at Lesson: Impossible got in touch and asked if I’d like to come on and talk a bit more at this. I will take any opportunity I can get to talk math, so of course I said yes. If you’d like, you can listen to our conversation below:
At one point, Aviva asked me what I would say to folks like Sarah’s colleague; folks who think that teaching math beyond a certain point is a waste of time.
“What’s the point of poetry?” I replied. “What’s the point of Shakespeare? What’s the point of fiction? If the purpose of reading is to convey information, then we should teach students how to read instruction manuals and that should be the only literature that they should be exposed to. There’s no beauty in reading. There’s no joy in reading.”
Sounds silly, right? And yet, we still continue to talk about math only in terms of its usefulness. And that’s due in large part to what math education looked and sounded like up until fairly recently.
When we stifle creativity and joy in the math classroom in favor of algorithms that only allow for correct answers calculated quickly instead of understanding, then it’s little wonder that math leaves a bad taste in the mouths of many, students and adults alike. Thankfully, that’s changing. Unfortunately, we as a community haven’t done a great PR job of celebrating our success stories, so many folks are operating off of their own memories of math class, and the fragments that they hear about from the children in their lives.
So let’s change the narrative. Let’s celebrate the joys of mathematics. Let’s highlight brilliant student discoveries and ideas. Let’s show off what kids can do when we get out of their way and let them shine. And let’s give ourselves permission to shine a little bit, too.