Monthly Archives: October 2017

Welcome to the Math Kitchen

A couple of weeks ago, at an ATOMIM Dine & Discuss launching our Becoming the Math Teacher You Wish You’d Had book study, Tracy Zager shared the following quote:

The front and back of mathematics aren’t physical locations like dining room and kitchen. They’re its public and private aspects. The front is open to outsiders; the back is restricted to insiders. The front is mathematics in finished form—lectures, textbooks, journals. The back is mathematics among working mathematicians, told in offices or at café tables.

Front mathematics is formal, precise, ordered, and abstract. It’s broken into definitions, theorems, and remarks. Every question either is answered or is labeled: ‘open question.’ At the beginning of each chapter, a goal is stated. At the end of the chapter, it’s attained.

Mathematics in back is fragmentary, informal, intuitive, tentative. We try this or that. We say, ‘maybe,’ or ‘it looks like.’

-Reuben Hersh, Professor Emeritus, Department of Math and Statistics, UNM

Tracy explained at the meeting that restaurants and theaters have a “front” where everything is presented perfectly to the public and a “back” where the chaos happens. This is the metaphor that Hersh is using. Too often our students are only exposed to the “front” of mathematics and none of the “back.”

I recently shared this at a BMTN meeting when a colleague coined the term “math kitchen.” And then she said, “Put on your apron – it’s going to get messy in here.” It made me think about how often my students want to have their math papers be perfect. Every mistake must be erased. Nothing can look messy. Am I alone here?

Another colleague said that she used to make all of her students do math in pen. That way they had to cross out mistakes. They couldn’t erase them. I think this is a brilliant idea.

Too often I hear my students say things like, “I remember doing something like this” or “I’m trying to remember what my teacher told me” or, God forbid, “I never learned this before.” What are we doing to our students that makes them think that they should have memorized or learned before what we are trying to teach them now?

So, in the spirit of exposing students to the “back of math” I say, “Welcome to the math kitchen. Grab a pen and put on your apron. It’s going to get messy in here.”

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My new PDSA

It’s the beginning of another year with the Better Math Teaching Network, so it’s time to figure out a new change idea. Okay, to be honest, the beginning of the new BMTN year happened back in July, but I was struggling with a new change idea. At least I’m teaching a bunch of algebra this year.

The aim of the Better Math Teaching Network (BMTN) is to increase the number of students who connect, justify, and solve with depth in algebra. Here’s how we’ve defined what that means:

  • Connect. Making connections among mathematical algorithms, concepts, and application to real-world contexts, where appropriate.
  • Justify. Communicating using mathematical thinking as well as critiquing the reasoning of others.
  • Solve. Making sense of and find solutions to challenging math problems beyond the rote application of algorithms.

Last year, I was solidly in the justify category and it was really fun. Even though I’m not teaching that class again this year, I have lots of ideas about how to infuse my classes with the concepts of “claim, evidence, reasoning.” In fact, I think that will be part of my term 2 PDSA since I’ll be teaching Intro to Logic again.

Back to this term. This term I am teaching 9th graders. Not only are they new to our school, they are coming from so many different backgrounds. These students did not grow up together. So, part of the purpose of the class is to help them to get to know each other. Another purpose of the class is to introduce them to a math class (possibly) unlike any other that they’ve experienced. This is a math class where the teachers don’t tell the students exactly what to do so they can “practice it” 50 more times on “exercises” where only the numbers have changed. You see, that’s not deeply engaging with math, or algebra in this case.

Given that I would be teaching this class in term 1, I had to figure out what I could focus on that would make this experience better for my students. Last year, a bunch of people in the BMTN attempted the Connect strand and found it to be really difficult. I was thinking to myself, I like the Justify strand – I’m really comfortable there. Solve wouldn’t be too bad, either. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought that I really needed to get into that Connect strand. So that’s where I am.

Ultimately, I landed on connecting to the concept of slope. It’s a huge concept, with so many connections. But when you ask kids about slope, they typically say something like “rise over run” or they’ll quote a formula or they’ll say “y = mx + b.” It’s not their fault that they don’t have a deep understanding of slope. It’s ours.

So, my term 1 PDSA is about giving my students opportunities to see slope in different contexts. I wonder if I’ll broaden their thinking … stay tuned.

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