# Still Here, Still Learning

I last posted in October. I wrote a review of Waiting for Superman that generated more traffic than I’d ever seen before on this blog. Since I had been intending to continue my series on the idea of mathematical talent since the summer, I decided not to post again until I was done with the next installment of that series. But because it involves some research, and I care about it a lot and want to get it just right and tend to get kind of obsessive about things like that, and because there’s been a lot of other stuff going on so I haven’t been working on it consistently, this has kept me from posting anything at all for 4.5 months. So maybe it was time to revisit that agreement with myself?

And a few days ago, JD2718 wrote me an email to the effect of, “yo, what happened to you?”

So, here’s a partial answer –

a) I learned a lot about leadership. One of my jobs this year has been to facilitate the weekly math department meeting at a high school, and plan the agenda for this meeting. This has gotten me involved with the communication channel between the department and the principal. I feel really grateful to have had the opportunity to do this. It has caused me to start to develop a completely different skill set than I’ve ever had to use before. (To give you a whiff of what I mean, it inspired the following facebook status: “Ben Blum-Smith thinks it is important to be a straight-shooter and a diplomat, and that you do each better by doing the other one.”)

b) I learned a lot about training new teachers. Another of my jobs this year has been as a faculty member of an MAT program. In the fall, my colleague Japheth Wood and I taught a “math teaching 101” typed course for our cohort of 12 preservice folks; this winter we taught the “math teaching 102” installment. They’ve been in apprenticeships for 9 weeks and we’ve just gone through observing them actually teach a few times, so now on my mind is – what am I happy with in their teaching? What’s missing? And what implications does all that have for our fall and winter courses?

c) I’ve continued to design and implement a graduate course on algebra and analysis for the faculty of a high school. This has been both awesome and very challenging. We chose to organize the course to culminate with the Fundamental Theorem of Algebra. At the beginning of the year I thought this was a reasonable goal and the course would not feel hurried. Now, 2/3 of the way in, somehow I’ve found myself feeling pressure to go through significant chunks of material at breakneck speed. That tension is of course absolutely part of the lives of all the participants in their own classrooms, so in a way it’s cool that this is parallel; but still. I am implicitly making a case with this course for the principles of math teaching I believe in, so I’d better be living those principles in my teaching of it. A few of them I feel like I’ve been 100% consistent with:

* Every day I will bring you questions that are worth your time, questions that even I think are exciting to think about even though I already know the content.
* A math course should have a plot, with beginning, middle, end, dramatic tension, resolution. (Math teaching as storytelling.)
* Central to learning math is the interplay between formal/rigorous thoughts, definitions etc. and intuitive notions. I will always stress the connections between the two.

Other principles I feel like I’ve nailed some of the time and totally let slip away other times in my concern to make sure we get to the content:

* (Closely related) The most powerful certification of new knowledge is consensus of the learning community, the same way new knowledge is certified in the research community.

3 classes ago I had them prove the irrationality of $\sqrt{2}$, spent the whole period on it, left them all the heavy lifting, noticed and brought out points that were bothering people, and generally aced these last two principles. The last two classes have felt the opposite way. I think I was talking 80% of the time in the most recent class. Lots of questions never got answered because they never got aired; lots of productive thoughts never got formed because they never had time to. Anyway, getting this course right will continue to be an engaging challenge.

d) I applied to doctoral programs in math. Now I need to decide where to go. The choices are NYU, CUNY and Rutgers. I feel very excited and torn.

e) If anybody remembers the ellipse problem that Sam Shah brought back from PCMI, and which I wrote about back in August… Japheth and I have completely solved it. I am going to tease you with this tidbit and not the solution itself because we wrote a manuscript on it which we hope to get published.

f) Okay this doesn’t fit under the rubric of “what happened to me” but here are some links you might enjoy:

* A Teacher Story by Anna Mudd. Anna’s blog, Drawmedy, is a beautiful kind of writing which I won’t try to describe. It’s not an education-themed blog so I was delighted to see her take on her experience as a teacher.

* This gem from Vi Hart: Wind and Mr. Ug

* Taylor Mali’s What Teachers Make. This poem is definitely amazing, and if you’ve never seen it, I think you won’t be sorry if you watch it before reading the next sentence. <pause>Pause while you watch the video.</pause> It brings up some ambivalent feelings in me too – these are a story for another time, but here’s the short version: It’s related to the tone of the current national conversation about education, which is all about how the incompetent slovenly dumb*sses in front of our children are f*cking everything up. In this context, Mali’s piece is an eloquent testament to the value of our work, but it also makes me uncomfortable. Mali appears to have been amazingly happy with the job he was doing as a teacher when he wrote and performed this. But I don’t think that (especially in light of the current climate of the conversation) feeling like you’re doing an amazing job should be in any way a requirement for testifying to the value of your work; especially since most of us do not feel that way, most of the time.

* Speaking of the current national conversation about education, a new study by the National Education Policy Center came out on New York City’s charter schools, which are often touted as models for the nation.

* It’s weird to experience yourself as an unwitting participant in a historical zeitgeisty trend, but I do. I have the strong feeling that the traditional distance between the mathematics education community and the mathematics research community is closing, and I, a classroom teacher and teacher trainer entering into a math PhD program, am like completely an example of that. Another is the latest issue of the Notices of the American Mathematical Society, which is the research community’s professional association. It is devoted to education. You can download it for free.

(Thanks, JD2718, for making me write all this.)

## 9 thoughts on “Still Here, Still Learning”

1. The note ended “…poof!” which was sort of interesting, but far less than your story.

There were a few blogs that were almost forming a community for me… a place to think about math and think about teaching math (you, Pat Ballew, Kate, Sue… on my fringes T. M. Khovanova, Sam, Curmudgeon). Strange, that’s my perspective because that’s what I was reading, others would have different webs… but I felt your disappearance.

Hope you’re back, if not now, then soon.

Jonathan

2. vlorbik says:

awesome post; good to see you again

thanks, ben! (thanks, JD!)

3. Ben, I’m intrigued. What are your long-term plans with a math PhD? In a sense, I’ve been going in the opposite direction for the last two years. In electrical engineering, I felt the research was so disconnected from the education side that I had to get out of my PhD program at Berkeley.

4. @ Dan – Thanks! Now it’s your turn…
@ JD2718 – Soon, I think, for sure. Anyway I really appreciate your reaching out.
@ vlorbik – Thanks! Confused by the twitter reference.
@ Matt – Good to see you here! You’re opening up a long conversation, which maybe we should have in person? A short, mysterious version is: notice what Japheth’s math PhD makes possible.

5. coulda sworn i’d seen you in twitter.
anyhow, i knew i’d seen you around
briefly *somewhere*… and am reasonably
sure it wasn’t just “some comment thread”.
sorry for the confusion.

6. Howard Brenner says:

Ben:

Always good to see you back and sharing your great insights. If you haven’t already read it, I wanted to again recommend a book called Here’s Looking at Euclid by Alex Bellos. Some great ideas about presenting ideas from higher mathematics to a general audience. The second half is much better than the third. As far as UFT Charter School: I guess you know by now that Danny’s gone and we’re looking for a principal again. bets regards.

Howard Brenner

PS: My trig class is the light in my life.

7. Howard – good to “see you back” too! Delighted to hear about the trig class. That’s the kids who took geometry with Carl last year?