In early December, I found out that my submission had been selected as the winner of the 2019 Rosenthal Prize for Inspiration and Innovation in Math Teaching. At the time, I had zero reference point to understand what that meant, but have since experienced first hand the hospitality of the international math education community. This post is not a summary of the winning submission; that detailed lesson plan has been posted on the MoMath website. Here, I want to take the time to reflect aloud on how this whole thing happened–a process, I think, might be of value for math teachers. I’ve attempted to distill my take-aways into four categories, but, in actuality, they still exist (for me) as a tangled heap composed of equal parts disbelief, gratitude, and empowerment to pursue the next challenge.
The best thing about online communities (IMO), is the emergence of artefacts from the collected actions of many people. The online math education community (known as the MTBoS) has seen many of these collections throughout the years, most of which are aimed at supporting imaginative mathematics instruction in grade school. Personally, I have felt the community around Fraction Talks explode right under my nose, and it has been a joy to see how the prompts have sponsored amazing student reasoning. A few months ago, I had another idea for a task structure–that I dubbed #MenuMath–and began to collect examples from engaged math teachers. Since then, the collection has grown and become bilingual thanks to the translation work of Joce Dagenais. I love hearing about student and teacher creations, and you are encouraged to submit menus via my contact page if you feel inspired to do so.
There is too much to like about Desmos. Really, though. The pace of innovation is gross. I am the first to admit that my sophistication with the platform is lagging behind the possibilities. I have never dabbled in Computation Layer, and I haven’t played with the Geometry. Part of my problem is the core team and the army of fellows are so darn accommodating with any questions.
One of my favourite activities remains the Marbleslides.1 They set a beautiful stage for students to stretch their imagination, and I have not yet met an activity that sponsors a need domain and range in a more organic fashion. I have used them with all secondary grade levels, and they will be a regular part of the weekly work for my undergraduate students in their mathematics methods course this Winter.
A huge piece of my identity is invested in being a mathematics teacher.1 This week I began a new and interesting challenge as a university faculty member preparing pre-service elementary and secondary mathematics teachers. This provides me more time to think deeply and openly about the entirety of the mathematics education enterprise, and put some of those ideas into public circulation through speaking and writing opportunities. I am really looking forward to that.
It also means that I am charged with orchestrating the formative experiences with mathematics teaching for about half of my province’s new teachers. That fact is terrifying. I am given just thirteen days in each course with which to shape the impressions, experiences, and ambitions of the future teachers of my province, city, school division, and (quite possibly) my own children. Thirteen days.
For the first time in a decade, I am not reconvening with a high school staff to begin preparations for the school year. (I’m preparing to work with pre-service teachers on a university campus). It feels weird–very weird. It is a day that I look forward to because optimism is a constant across the building. Staff feels fresh, materials are crisp, and possibilities are endless. It sadly belies what’s to come.
Much of what appears in mathematics textbooks is what I like to call, downstream thinking. Downstream thinking usually involves two features that set the stage for learners. First, it provides a context (however doctored or engineered–often referred to as “pseudo-context”). Second, the problem provides a pre-packaged algebraic model that is assumed to have arisen from that context.
Exactly one month ago, fellow Saskatchewan mathematics teacher Ilona Vashchyshyn tweeted about an area task that she used in her class. Long story short, it captured the imagination of Math Ed Twitter like elegant tasks have a tendency of doing.
The challenge: Write your name so that it covers an area of exactly 100 cm squared.
— Ilona Vashchyshyn (@vaslona) November 16, 2018
One of the great parts of my job as a split classroom teacher and division consultant is that I get to spend time in classrooms from grades six to twelve. This means I often need to be in one head space to teach my own Grade 12s and then switch gears to act with younger mathematicians. It also means that the classroom experiences are sporadic and involve teachers working in several different places in several different curricula.
On this particular occasion, I was working with a 7/8 split class that had just finished a unit on perfect squares and divisibility rules, and we wanted an activity that could serve as a sort of review of divisibility rules but also reveal something cool about perfect squares. I thought about the locker problem, but it doesn’t require students to factor in order to see the pattern. Instead, I took some of the underlying mathematical principles (namely: that perfect squares have an odd number of factors) and wrapped it in a structure suited for a Friday afternoon.
Every time I teach a unit on fractions, there are many students who insist that they’d rather use decimals, and I don’t blame them. The obvious parallels to the whole numbers make decimals a “friendly” extension from the integers into the rational numbers.1 Many of the things school math asks kids to do with rational numbers can be easily transferred into decimals with minimal stress on the algorithms. Such is not the case with fractions. Take addition for example.
I have mixed feelings about student questions.
We (as teachers) act like we want students to ask questions; however, there are plenty of implicit messages about teaching that tell us that good teachers don’t need students to ask questions. One of the oldest pillars of teaching tells us to provide adequate wait time for students to formulate and ask questions, but there is a sense of relief when time passes without the need for clarification. This feeling essentially equates clarity with quality. Wait time becomes an emergency procedure to be used when we feel an awkward imbalance in the room.