Thursday, October 15, 2009

quotes of the week

i don't know if any of these translate without audio and facial expressions, but here's hoping:
"jesse come look come look! i have my own rule for doing this now, let me explain it to you!"
"this class is so sexy...erhm, i mean, i just really love math class."
"when you sing, it makes angels cry. CRY!"
"there are 10 days in a week"
"there are 12 hours in a day"
and, finally, no one asked why their math teacher asked them to draw a picture of a flying monkey.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

smarter than 2

this whole conversation started when ben blum-smith read me the preface of mariana cook's new book of photographs of mathematicians:

"Mathematicians are exception. They are not like everyone else. They may look like the rest of us, but they are not the same. For starters, most of them are a great deal smarter."
i totally nodded right along with him reading! what is that? confession: i walk around thinking that my math friends ben and justin and all these people are just smarter, more capable, better than i am.
and the thing is, it doesn't matter if that's true. the thought that it is, the possibility that it is, is so debilitating that i have felt (in the last three weeks!) that i should stop teaching, despite the fact that i know i'm doing this about as well as people do it and the people that have seen me do it would hate to see me stop. or whatever, even if i was bad at it, i won't get better if i think i'm just not smart like mathematicians are smart. or whatever. the problem is the very idea that true hierarchy exists. the notion of hierarchy is limiting because then some people are just smarter, and then the thought "i am one of them" or "i am not one of them" are equally problematic.

why do we (or a big portion of the general we) see mathematicians as different? and how is it affecting my students? kids (plus me and unapologetic too, it seems) are walking around feeling defined by either having smarts or a lack of them. i question the truth of these ideas in the first place, but definitely the usefulness of these beliefs when kids get attached to these self-definitions. i wonder how to keep the identity question balls up in the air during high school, rather than supporting kids in pinning themselves down.

i'm proposing that ALL kids can feel empowered and smart, not because all kids are the same, but because kids aren't all one thing. i want to give kids opportunities to perceive themselves in different roles so that they don't ever feel limited, in anything. i want my kids to be able to bite into the experience of success (which will look different for different kids) and struggle (a very useful thing for everybody to know how to work through). i want them to see each other as resources, sometimes surprising and unexpected. i want anyone in the room to be able to be the one that has the insight, no matter what has happened in their pasts.

good luck, right?
well i'm trying.

seriously, big thanks to you big debaters out there. i love it.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

smarter than...

two big ideas came together for me today in a beautiful way:
idea 1: from the psychoanalytic standpoint, group theory suggests that students take on different roles: monopolizers, hiders, harmonizers, bullies, etc. this is natural, even useful. problems in the group arise not when kids take on roles, but when kids are always playing the same roles! if the same person is always doing all the talking, maybe at first a bunch of folks are content to sit back and let them do the heavy lifting. but eventually the group is going to get pissed because they aren't getting their say. so it's important to keep roles in the classroom (or whatever group you're leading) fluid, and how to do that is what i've been studying and thinking about lately. just trying to watch it happen is pretty cool.

idea 2: ben blum-smith made a comparison for me today between racism and the idea that some people are better at math than others. he was pointing to both as culturally insidious ideas of inequity that have maintained their strength despite obvious uselessness and inaccuracy because the structural privilege they provide benefits too many people. i couldn't quite grab onto this parallel until he explained that the benefits of the idea of mathematical talent (let's call it) aren't just to the elite mathematical class, but to anyone who has ever felt like they were smarter than someone else. ever.


that hit me harder than anything all week. and i've had a big week. is it actually true that some people are smarter than others? certainly the power of "i'm smarter than..." rang loud and clear for me. there's a lot of meat in here for me to consider, but the thing i wanted to share was this:

what makes sense to me is that kids need to experience themselves in different ways in order to learn, in order to learn how to learn, in order to get good at living. and so it's not ok for the same kid to always be the one that's good at it. who gets it. who explains it. who aces it. it's not ok for the same kid to always feel like they're just not good at it. the good at it and the not so good at it are ok, maybe, as long as those labels don't get stuck in the same place.
this idea feels like the most radical one i've ever had. that we none of us "deserve" to feel like we're smarter all the time. or that we're less smart all the time. i don't believe it, but even if someone had research to show that it was, i'd still advocate for the structural intervention of pretending that it's not.

practical applications for tomorrow:
- see kids as changing beings. really observe, listen, watch, each day with conscious but open eyes (as opposed to permanently labeling them in my own mind as high fliers and low.)
- give them lots of different kinds of things to do, and to highlight the success and struggle of everyone in those contexts, so that it's clear that there will probably always be folks in those roles, that the roles in and of themselves don't necessarily mean anything, because those roles are changing all the time.