Thurston Monday, Aug 27 2012
I got home last night from a week and a half of traveling to find a newspaper clipping my mother sent me: the obituary for Bill Thurston in the New York Times. I hadn’t know he was sick.
Thurston was a giant of twentieth century geometry, but more important to me is the sense I always get from his writing – a sense of warmth, the intention to share, an abiding interest in math as a human practice. A complete lack of interest in the privilege of being seen as brilliant. A desire to demystify the process of mathematical discovery.
I spent some time today looking for online tributes. Justin Lanier wrote a beautiful one. My desire to refer you to this was the impulse that prompted this post.
Here’s something else beautiful: Thurston’s profile on MathOverflow, linking to the questions he asked and answered on that site.
And for math and art enthusiasts, here’s some high fashion inspired by Thurston’s work.
Rest in peace Bill Thurston.
Some Miscellaneous Awesomeness Wednesday, Jul 18 2012
Just some awesome stuff I feel like pointing out:
Vi Hart does it again. That young woman has created a new art form.
Terry Tao’s airport puzzle. If you have to get from one end of the airport to the other to catch a plane, but you really need to stop for a minute to tie your shoe, is it best to do it while you’re on the moving walkway or not? (I learned this problem from Tim Gowers’ blog.)
Paul Salomon quotes Vi Hart quoting Edmund Snow Carpenter, and the quote is absolutely worth me quoting yet again:
The trouble with knowing what to say and saying it clearly and fully, is that clear speaking is generally obsolete thinking. Clear statement is like an art object: it is the afterlife of the process which called it into being.
Dan Goldner is doing my job for me. The original purpose of this blog was to read writing about math education, and to summarize and discuss it. I don’t do this very much any more (although expect summaries of a couple articles from the current JRME in the next few
weeks months), but I do have a long list of things I wanted to read and discuss here but figured I’d probably never get to. On this list was the 1938 NCTM Yearbook, The Nature of Proof, by Harold Fawcett. But I’m taking it off; Dan’s got it covered.
Purging Thursday, Jul 5 2012
This is an impulsive and probably self-indulgent post.
When I moved to New York almost 6 years ago, I stowed two crates of hanging files in my grandmother’s closet. They are artifacts of my 2000-2005 teaching career in Boston. One crate, curricular materials; the other, student work. They had made it past one round of purging – this was the stuff I chose to bring with me to New York.
But they’ve been gathering dust since 2006 and I figured I owed it to my grandmother to get them out of her hair, so I picked them up on Tuesday. They’re sitting on my living room floor. I have absolutely no sensible place in my apartment for them. I am next to them, on the couch, a bag of paper recycling at my feet.
I didn’t budget time for these guys, and the time efficient move is to not even think about it; just dump it all.
I can’t bring myself to do this. That said, knowing how I get, if I start going through it paper by paper then (a) I will be here till next week and (b) at least half of it I will not be able to throw out.
Maybe I can make this blog post some kind of middle ground.
* Here’s the Jeopardy game I played with my Algebra I and Calculus classes they day before winter break! Optimization for $300: This is the maximum amount of money you can make selling cookies if you know that you could sell 100 cookies for $1 each, and that every time you raise the price $0.25, you lose 10 customers. Final Jeopardy (Algebra): , given that , and . Mr. Blum-Smith trivia for $200: Mr. Blum-Smith’s grandmother was kissed by this former US president. (Same grandmother whose apartment has been housing all this sh*t! Correct response: who is Bill Clinton?)
* Here are my various attempts at teaching about proof in Algebra I! My first year, I tried to teach a “proof unit.” It culminated with a “proof project,” where I had students attempt to prove one of six eclectic elementary theorems (e.g., sum of first odd numbers is ; any composite has a factor but its square root; …). I remember being essentially unsatisfied. In the notes I made to myself after implementation (ed note: HOW CAN I THROW THESE OUT! F*CK!) I was starting to realize the whole thing was ill-conceived. I was smashing together the problem of actually figuring out what’s going on (interesting, unexpected, no guaranteed outcome) with the formal process of making it into an argument. I was setting the kids up. In my fourth year, I revisited the idea except with more coherence because the whole thing was based on creating a “number trick” (“think of a number; add 6; multiply by 2; … ; you got 42!”) and proving it worked. Still, the proof aspect of the unit was stilted and poorly motivated because the kids couldn’t see the need for the amount of formality I was insisting on.
* Here is a unit I wrote my student teaching year, about tessellations and symmetry, based on Escher. Here are pages of transparencies with Escher prints and other tessellations. Here are the 5 envelopes of tessellating polygons (triangles, rhombi, a nonconvex quadrilateral, some special pentagons…) I designed on the computer and lovingly cut out of paper. I never taught this unit again.
* Order of operations. I used to use this activity I stole from my own 7th and 8th grade math teacher, Steve Barkin, an institution of the Cambridge public schools. Take the year (I used to use the kids’ birth year, or just make it 1994 if I wanted it to be easier), and using the digits in that order, put any math symbols you want between them to get as many of the numbers from 1 to 100 as you can.
* Ah! And an inheritance from Steve I never actually made use of: a kind of integer number sense activity where you label the vertices of a graph with integers so that the numbers on adjacent vertices differ by 10, or else one of them is double the other. Like this! Fill in the blanks: . Solution: .
* CAN THEORY. This was the name of my linear-equations-in-a-single-variable unit, the core topic of my Algebra I class. I took the name and the idea from Maurice Page, then the math coordinator of the Cambridge Public Schools. The unit became what it was in my classroom in collaboration with my awesome colleagues Jess Flick (then Jess Jacob) and Mike Jenkins. The whole unit was based on physically modeling the equations with plastic cups and poker chips on a table; I put a piece of tape down the middle of the table and the rules were, all cups have to hold the same number of chips and both sides of the table have to have the same number of chips total. You figure out how many chips go in the cup. I beat that model to death every year. I tweaked the model in various ways to accommodate negative and fractional coefficients and solutions. That was the one topic I would have counted on nearly all my students still having mastery of the following year.
* Qualitative graphs! One of the years of my collaboration with Jess and Mike, we implemented an idea Mike brought to the table of a unit in Algebra I that was about interpreting qualitative features of cartesian graphs. The culminating project was, you picked a container (we had all kinds of shapes – beakers, vases, wine glasses, etc.), you filled it steadily with water and measured its height against the amount of water it contained, and you drew a graph of that. Before you did the experiment you predicted what the graph would look like. Afterward, you wrote an explanation of the features of the graph (changes in slope; concavity; inflection points) and discussed how they related to the shape of the container. My experience of the unit was that it was very difficult for kids, but it definitely felt like some proto-calculus skills.
That was the easy stuff. (I know; I’m being dramatic.) STUDENT WORK:
No, I can’t even open this up. GRRR. To every student I taught in 2000-2005: I am about to dump into a bag of paper recycling a whole lot of both your and my blood, sweat and tears. RRRRR okay. I have to immortalize a few memories. This will be spotty and haphazard, please forgive me. I am leaving most of you out in the below, but to all of you let me say that I hope you learned half as much from me as I did from you.
W: Best handwriting ever. Every homework assignment literally looked like the inscription on the One Ring. May you bring that level of love to everything you do.
D and M: The two black women in a calculus class I had allowed to be dominated by the personalities of cocky (mostly white) boys, you had the courage, and the respect for me and my potential for growth, to tell me what this felt like. I am grateful you did and sorry you had to. You are both rock stars and I regret that my class wasn’t a better environment for expressing that.
N and M: You stand out in my mind in your willingness to put in time and effort to understanding what you didn’t before. You put in after-school time to the degree it could have been a part-time job. That kind of commitment got you past hurdles higher than many adults I know have ever had to face. In my life I have come to understand that anybody can learn anything, and you guys helped teach me that.
C and M: I was a rigid grader. I put the numbers in the computer and whatever came out, that was your grade. I used an old-fashioned grading system that punished missed work harshly and made it very hard to climb out of a hole. Knowing I hated grading, this rigidity was how I protected myself: I didn’t have to make judgement calls, I just put the numbers in the computer and didn’t think about it. I didn’t allow myself to imagine what receiving the grades felt like. Both of you were students who had some bad student habits but showed tremendous growth over the time we worked together, stretching yourself to contribute positively to both your learning and the class community. I gave a lot of F’s that in retrospect I regret. Yours are the two I regret most.
W: As a math student you were an amazing combination of depth of thought and engagement, on the one hand, and desperate difficulty mastering computational techniques, expressing yourself in writing, or doing anything at all in a subinfinite amount of time, on the other. You asked some of the most thoughtful and interesting questions in class that I have ever heard. You practically never finished a test, even if you came after school for 3 hours to work on it. You were uniquely gentle and generous with myself and your classmates at all times. Rest in peace, W.
Another One to Keep Your Eye On: Anna Weltman Saturday, Jun 23 2012
Here’s another blog to keep an eye on:
Recipes for Pi, by Anna Weltman.
I know Anna IRL. In fact, both of us have seen the other one teach. Thus prior to discovering her blog I already knew her as mathematically thought-provoking, endlessly creative, and deeply tuned in to student experience, not to mention a total sweetheart.
So I was excited to learn that she had started blogging in February, and her writing hasn’t disappointed. It’s sporadic, but who am I to complain about that, and more importantly it’s characterized by that same deep thinking about math and student experience that marks her teaching. Check it out.
Dispatches from the Learning Lab: Partial Understanding Monday, Apr 30 2012
So here’s another one that I suppose is kind of obvious, but nonetheless feels like big, important news to me:
It’s possible to only partly understand what somebody else is saying.
Let me be more specific. When you’re explaining something to me, it’s possible for me to get some idea from it in a clear way, to the point where my understanding registers on my face, but nonetheless the other 7 ideas you were describing I have no idea what you’re talking about.
I am a 9th grader in your Algebra I class. You’re teaching me about linear functions. You are explaining to the class how to find the -intercept of a linear function, in slope-intercept form, given that the slope is and the point lies on the line. You explain that the equation has the form and that because we know the point is on the line, that this point satisfies the equation. Thus you write
on the board. At this point I recognize that we are trying to find and that we have an easy single-variable linear equation to solve. My face lights up and you take mental note of my engagement. Maybe you even ask for the -intercept, and since I recognize that this must be I calculate and raise my hand.
Meanwhile, I have only the vaguest sense of the meaning of the phrase “-intercept.” I have literally no understanding of why I should expect the equation to have the form . I have a nagging feeling of dissatisfaction ever since you substituted into the equation because I thought and were supposed to be the variables but now it looks like is the variable. Most importantly, I do not understand that the presence of the point on the line implies that its coordinates satisfy the equation of the line and conversely, because on a very basic level I don’t understand what the graph of the function is a picture of. This has been bothering me ever since we started the unit, when you had me plug in a bunch of values into some equations and obtain corresponding values, graph them, and then draw a solid line connecting the three or four points. Why am I drawing these lines? What are they pictures of?
Occasionally, I’ve asked a question aimed at getting clarity on some of these basic points. “How did you know to put the 6 and 11 into the equation?” But because I can’t be articulate about what I don’t understand, since I don’t understand it, and you can’t hear what I’m missing in my questions because the the theory is complete and whole in your mind, these attempts come to the same unsatisfying conclusion every time. You explain again; I frown; you explain a different way; I say, “I don’t understand.” You, I, and everyone else grow uncomfortable as the impasse continues. Eventually, you offer some thought that has something in it for me to latch onto, just as I latched onto solving for before. Just to dispel the tension and let you get on with your job, I say, “Ah! Yes, I understand.”
This example is my attempt to translate a few experiences I’ve had this semester into the setting of high school. The behavior of the student in that last paragraph was typical of me in these situations, though it would be atypical from a high school student, drawing as it does on the resources of my adulthood and educator background to self-advocate, to tolerate awkwardness, even to be aware that my understanding was incomplete. Still, often enough I ended up copping out as the student does above, understanding one of the 8 things that were going on, and latching onto it just so I could allow myself, the teacher and the class to move on gracefully. Conversations with other students indicated that my sense of incomplete understanding was entirely typical, even if my self-advocacy was not.
The take-home lesson is two-fold. Point one is about the limitations of explaining as a method of teaching. Point two is about the limitations of trusting your students’ (verbal or implied) response to your (verbal or implied) question, Do you understand?
The basic answer (as you can tell from the example) is, No, I don’t.
Now I myself love explaining and have done a great deal of it as a teacher. I fancy myself an extremely clear and articulate explainer. But it couldn’t be more abundantly clear, from this side of the desk, how limited is the experience of being explained to. I mean, actually it’s a great, key, important way to learn, but only in small doses and when I’m ready for it, when the groundwork for what you have to say has been properly set.
I am somewhat chastened by this. I am thinking back self-consciously to times when I’ve explained my students’ ears off rather than, in the immortal words of Shawn Cornally, “lay off and let them fucking think for a second.” It’s like I was too taken with the clarity and beauty of the formulation I was offering, or in too much of a hurry to let them work through what they had to work through, or in all likelihood both, to see that more words weren’t going to do any good. Beyond this, I’m thinking back on the faith I’ve put in my ability to read students’ level of understanding from their faces. I maintain that I’m way better at this than my professors, but I don’t think I’ve had enough respect for how you can understand a small part of something and have that feel like a big enough deal to say, and mean, “Oh I get it.” Or to understand a tiny part of something and use that as cover for not understanding the rest.