You Spin Me Right Round: A Challenge for Geometry Teachers

We are now delving into some interesting coordinate geometry. We’re also beginning to use patty paper. And today the other geometry teacher and I had an awesomely fun conversation that revoles around something you might find it fun to think about.

Here’s the impetus/setup.

We have just finished talking about translations, and we’re moving on to reflections and rotations. When we introduce rotations to kids, we give them a backwards problem pretty early on: here is a figure and here is the rotation of the figure. Try to find the center of rotation. Use patty paper and guess and check.

rot2

 

This is an awesome exercise (inmyhumbleopinion) because it has kids use patty paper, it has them kinesthetically see the rotation, and it gives them immediate feedback on whether the point they thought was the center of rotation truly is the center of rotation. Simple, sweet, forces some thought.

This is our intro. We have a few more exercises in our problem packet similar to this. But then we move on. Le sigh. This felt wholly unsatisfying to us, because at its heart we left our kids hanging. We never get at the obvious question. How do I find the center of rotation without guessing and checking.

How do we take this introduction and make it mathematics?

The Challenge

[Baby challenge: Figure out how to find the center of rotation, given any figure and a rotated figure. This is not totally simple, okay? I'm calling it a baby challenge only because the next challenge is sooooo hard!]

Imagine you’re a geometry teacher, and you want students to discover a “foolproof method” to coming up with the center of rotation (given an original figure and a rotated figure). You also want students to be able to understand (deeply) and articulate why this method gives you the center of rotation.

What do you do to achieve these twin goals?

(This is what the other teacher and I were discussing today, and having loads of fun doing it!)

image (17)

You don’t need to answer this question in the comments. (Though you’re welcome to throw down any ideas.) I’m actually not looking for advice. (We’re well on our way to coming up with an answer to this.) I just thought it would be a fun thought exercise for you, if you like thinking of lesson planning/curriculum design. This is the type of stuff I love thinking about — when I have time!

This is backwards planning at it’s most fun, in my opinion. I have a deep result that is abstract and hard to grasp. I have very concrete 9th graders who I want to get from knowing almost nothing to discovering, understanding, and marveling at this great mathematical insight. How do I get from Point A to Point B?

 

 

Attacks and Counterattacks in Geometry

It’s been a long while since I’ve posted. It isn’t because I have nothing to post about! I’ve just been sooooo busy. This is the first year I’m teaching Geometry, and I’m working with the other teacher to turn it on it’s head. Completely. We haven’t cracked the textbook yet.

We started off the year with a very conceptual beginning, focusing on the importance of words, definitions, and classification. As you might have remembered from our first day activity, we have also been sprinkling in a good amount of conjecturing. [1]

I want to share one activity that I thought was not only was engaging, but led to really interesting discussions in my classroom.

***

Part I: Defining & Counter-attacking

On the second day of class, I had each of my geometry groups try to come up with a definition for the following words:

define

This is actually really challenging. I mean: you yourself, try to define a triangle without looking it up, or even more challenging, a polygon. Before starting, groups were told that other groups would try to find fault with their definitions, so they should be as specific and clear as possible.

Some things different groups wrote (all are problematic for various reasons):

Circle: “A circle is a closed figure where all the points are an equal distance from the epicenter, and starts and ends at the same point.”

Triangle: “A triangle is a 3-sided, 3-angled shape with straight lines that connect to the endpoints. Also, all the angles add to 180 degrees.”

Polygon: “Any shape that has exclusively straight edges that are all connected, and has to have at least three angles.”

Each group then passed their three definitions to a different group. And that new group was tasked with finding a counter-attack to these definitions. What this means is they needed to draw something that satisfies the definition they were given, but is not a circle (or triangle, or polygon). Those trying to counter-attack were allowed to read the definitions they were given in any way that seemed reasonable to them.

We then had a class discussion. Students publicly posted their group’s definitions (they were written on giant whiteboards), and then those with counter-attacks were allowed to present them to the whole class. When the counter-attacks were presented, it was interesting how the discussions unfolded. The original group often wanted to defend their definition, and state why the counter-attack was incorrect. Then a short spontaneous discussion would occur.

At the end of the discussion, I found myself often being arbiter and passing judgment on each counter-attack: “yes, this counter-attack works, because …” or “no, this counter-attack doesn’t work, because…” I felt the kids needed to know (a) whether the counter-attack really did satisfy all parts of the group’s definition, and (b) whether the counter-attack was using a fair reading of the group’s definition. When I said the counter-attack was valid, the group who found the counter-attack was elated! And when I said the counter-attack was invalid, the group who wrote the definition was elated! It became a bit of a spontaneous contest.

What was awesome was the subtleties they ended up talking about when trying to find the counter-attacks. When talking about the circles or polygons, for example, they realized that we have to say this is a 2D figure, otherwise there are many other curves that would work. When talking about triangles, saying the figure had three angles was problematic because there are 3 interior angles and 3 exterior angles. For triangles and polygons, students realized how crucial it was to say that the figures were closed. I was so impressed with how they were really trying to attend to precision in this task.

***

Part II: Understanding The Textbook Definitions

Eventually, we looked at a textbook’s definitions for these three words.

def1

def2

def3

It took us a while to understand these definitions, and why the particular language was chosen. The polygon definition was especially challenging — especially the second half!

***

Part III: Taking Things Further

I started the next class with the following DO NOW:

counterattack

Although I thought this would be easy for them, it was interesting to see that they found this challenging and abstract.

We also came up with the following two questions for a mini-quiz we gave:

quiz3

quiz2

***

The ending of our first unit involved students coming up with their own definitions for the bunch of quadrilaterals (kite, dart, square, trapezoid, rectangle, rhombus, convex quadrilateral, concave quadrilateral, isosceles trapezoid, parallelogram). This opening activity was designed to make that exercise easier when we got to there. Specifically, it was designed to show them that clear and precise language is important to communicate your ideas, and it isn’t easy to come up with clear and precise languageThings that we “think we know” are really quite hard to pin down… Like what a circle, triangle, and polygon are.

[1] I’m finding this to be a really rewarding thing to have sprinkled in. I’m learning it’s challenging for students to be able to try to make a potential conclusion from a number of examples. But in fact, isn’t that a crucial skill in mathematics? We see a number of examples of something, we decide on a very plausible conjecture, and then we try to reason out why that conjecture is true (or come to realize it isn’t true)?

Interesting conjectures

Today was my first day of classes — thirty minutes with each class just as a get to know you. Of course you know me. I dive right in and we did math in all of my classes.

The class I’m most nervous about this year is Geometry. It’s my first time teaching the subject, and it’s my first time teaching 9th graders. I had planned a paper folding activity which would get the students noticing and wondering. And importantly, then conjecturing.

Here are a quick snips from the paper folding activity.

The big idea was to get kids to realize that no matter which two points you chose initial to make that first fold, you’ll always end up with some things that are true in your final figure. Each student at a group folded two different pieces of paper — differently. Each group then looked at all their paper folds and made some great observations.

The couple that stood out to me:

When you make the folds, you will always end up with a pentagon. Some of the kids had a really small side, so they didn’t “see” the pentagon, but with a little prompting they did.

The five sided figure has three right angles. The two at the top (the corners of the original sheet of paper) and the point at the bottom. The point at the bottom is always going to be a right angle. 

As a class, people shared their group’s observations. And then we focused on that third right angle. THAT IS WEIRD.

And so I sent the kids off to try to come up with some reasoning for why that third angle is always a right angle.

And this is where I had my good moments. This is not an easy question for the very first day of class. And with the 8-10 minutes they had, no group completely made a perfectly sound set of reasoning. But so many were making statements that were getting them closer to the answer.

A few groups noticed that the two folded triangles looked like they were always similar. (Indeed, I had totally missed that when I first did this problem…) Some kids were able to come up with the logic that if the triangles were similar, then they could actually prove the bottom point was 90 degrees. Loved it! (As of yet, no kid or group has proved that the triangles are similar.

And a few groups were also noting that when you unfold the paper, there is something really remarkable about the bottom of the page, with the two creases emanating from that point (which is the vertex of that 90 degree angle when folded). They noted that somehow — by folding up the two triangles — they are splitting the bottom of the page (a 180 degree angle) into three angles, where the middle angle is always 90 degrees.So they have a 90 degree angle, and then two smaller angles that add up to 90 degrees. I said: that’s awesome. Now how do you know that three middle angle is 90 degrees, no matter where the creases are? (As of yet, no kid or group has explained this halving.)

They are getting there.

Even though I was nervous about this being too hard and even though I wanted to provide more hints and more structure… I let things be. I wanted it to be tough. It wasn’t about the answer, but about the process of talking with each other and thinking and persevering and reasoning.

In fact, I wrote on the board that kids can ask me for one hint to help them if they got stuck. No group asked for a hint!

I am excited to see what happens when I next see them (Monday). I am having them try to figure this out at home, and write up whatever they could discover. If they could figure out the reasoning, great. If not, what did they think about and attempt.

My one good thing from today was watching my kids think aloud and struggle aloud and come up with really interesting ideas. Ideas I thought they might come up with, and ideas that were fresh to my eyes!

Here are all our paper foldings!

20140909_125022

 

[Note: I am posting this both on the one-good-thing blog and my blog, because it both is a good thing and because it deals with teaching my classes!]

The Formal Definition of the Derivative, or Why Holes Matter

Lucky you! Two calculus posts in one day. Mainly because I don’t want some of these ideas to disappear in my hiatus from teaching it. This one deals with our favorite topic: the formal definition of the derivative.

\lim_{h \rightarrow 0}\frac{f(x+h)-f(x)}{(x+h)-(x)}

I see that expression and my mind goes to the following places:

  • Doing a bunch of tedious algebraic calculations for a particular function in order to find the derivative.
  • I “see” in the expression the slope of two points close together.
  • I envision the following image, showing a secant line turning into a tangent line
    zzzz

And I think for many teachers and most calculus students, they think something similar.

However I asked my (non-AP) calculus kids what the h stood for. Out of two sections of kids, I think only one or two kids got it with minimal prompting. (Eventually I worked on getting the rest to understand, and I think I did a decent job.) I dare you to ask your kids and see what you get as a response.

What I suspect is that kids get told the meaning of \lim_{h \rightarrow 0}\frac{f(x+h)-f(x)}{(x+h)-(x)} and it gets drilled into their heads that they might not fully understand what algebraically is going on with it.

It was only a few years ago that I came to the conclusion that even I myself didn’t understand it. And when I finally thought it all through, I came to the conclusion that all of differential calculus is based on the question: how do you find the height of a hole? I started seeing holes as the lynchpin to a conceptual understanding of derivatives. I never got to fully exploit this idea in my classes, but I did start doing it. It felt good to dig deep.

The big thing I realized is that I rarely looked at the formal definition of the derivative as an equation. I almost always looked at it as an expression. But if it’s an equation…

f'(x)=\lim_{h \rightarrow 0}\frac{f(x+h)-f(x)}{(x+h)-(x)}

… what is it an equation of? An equation with a limit as part of it?! Let’s ignore the limit for now.

Without the limit, we have an average rate of change function, between (x,f(x)) and (x+h,f(x+h)). And since we have removed the limit, we really have a function of two variables.

AvgRateOfChange(x,h)=\frac{f(x+h)-f(x)}{(x+h)-(x)}

We feed an x and h into the function, and we get an output of a slope! It’s the slope between (x,f(x)) and (x+h,f(x+h))!

Let’s get concrete. Check out this applet (click the image to have it open up):

zzzzz1

On the left is the original function. We are going to calculate the “average rate of change function” with an x-input of 1.64 (the x-value the applet opens up with).We are now going to vary h and see what our average rate of change function looks like: f(1.64,h)=\frac{f(1.64+h)-f(1.64)}{h}. That’s what the yellow point is.

Before varying h, notice in the image when h is a little above 2, the yellow “Average Rate of Change” dot is negative. That’s because the slope of the secant line between the original point (1.64, f(1.64)) and a second point on the function that is a little over 2 units to the right is negative. (Look at the secant line on the graph on the left!)

Now let’s change h. Drag the point on the right graph that says “h value.” As you drag it, you’ll see the second point on the function move, and also the yellow point will change with the corresponding new slope. As you drag h, you’re populating points on the right hand graph. What’s being drawn on the right hand graph is the average rate of change graph for all these various distances h!

Here’s an image of what it looks like after you drag h for a bit.

zzzzz2

Notice now when our h-value is almost -3 (so the second point is 3 horizontal units left of the original point of interest), we have a positive slope for the secant line… a positive average rate of change.

The left graph is an x-f(x) graph (those are the axes). The right graph is a $h-AvgRateOfChange$ graph (those are the axes).

Okay okay, this is all well and dandy. But who cares?

I CARE!

We may have generated an average rate of change function, but we wanted a derivative function. That is when h approaches 0. We want to examine our average rate of change graph near where h is 0. Recall the horizontal axis is the h-axis on the right graph. So when h is close to 0, we’re looking at the the vertical axis… Let’s look…

zzzzz3 Oh dear missing points! Why? Let’s drag the h value to exactly h=0.

zzzzz4

The yellow average rate of change point disappeared. And it says the average rate of change is undefined! 0/0. We have a hole! Why?

(When h=0 exactly, our average rate of change function is: \frac{f(x+0)-f(x)}{(x+0)-x} which is 0/0. YIKES!

But the height of the hole is precisely the value of the derivative. Because remember the derivative is what happens as h gets super duper infinitely close to 0.

We can drag h to be close to 0. Here h is 0.02. zzzzz5

But that is not infinitely close. So this is a good approximation. But it isn’t perfect.

And this is why I have concluded that all of differential calculus actually reduces to the problem of finding the height of a hole. 

Here are three different average rate of change applets that you might find fun to play with:

one (this is the one above)     two     three

In short (now that you’ve made it this far):

  • Look at the formal definition of the derivative as an equation, not an expression. It yields a function.
  • What kind of function does it indicate? An average rate of change function. And in fact, thinking deeply, it actually forces you to create a function with two inputs: an x-value and an h-value.
  • Now to make it a derivative, and not an average rate of change, you need to bring h close to 0.
  • As you do this, you will see you create a new function, but with a hole at h=0.
  • It is the height of this hole that is the derivative.

 PS. A random thought… This could be useful in a multivariable calculus course. Let’s look at the average rate of change function for f(x)=x^2:

AverageRateofChange(x,h)=\frac{(x+h)^2-x^2}{h}

Let’s convert this to a more traditional form:

z=\frac{(x+y)^2-x^2}{y}

Now we have a function of two variables. We want to find what happens as h (I mean y) gets closer and closer to 0 for a given x-value. So to do this, we can just visually look at what happens to the function near y=0. Even though the function will be undefined at all points where y=0, visually the intersection of the plane y=0 and the average rate of function should carve out the derivative function.

If this doesn’t make sense, I did some quick graphs on WinPlot…

This is for f(x)=x^2. And I graphed the plane where y=0. We should get the intersection to look like the line f'(x)=2x.

zzsine

Yup. Cool.

I did it for f(x)=\sin(x) also… The intersection should look like f'(x)=\cos(x).

zzsine2

u-substitution, visually

I created some calculus Geogebra applet thingies last summer that I wanted to use last year. Alas, time ran short and we never got to use them. However since I’m no longer teaching calculus (at least not next year), I figured I’d throw them up in case anyone else out there finds them useful.

They deal with u-substitution. I’ve always had a problem with teaching it. Here’s how it goes… You have some integral in terms of x. You convert all the xs and dxs into us and dus. And viola! It works out. It’s very powerful. And it’s procedural. And kids have throughout the years learned this “substitution”-y thing works [1]. So kids tend to like it.

But here’s the thing. For my kids, it’s just a random method to evaluate an integral. They don’t conceptually understand what is going on… what this changing of variables is doing.

When I thought deeply about this, I realized what truly is happening is that we are transforming space… From the x-f(x) plane to a much convoluted u-f(u) plane. But it is through our particular choice of u that makes the change in space beautiful, because it turns something that looks particularly nasty and converts it into something that looks rather nice. Ish.

Here is a screenshot from one of my geogebra applets illustrating this (you can click on the screenshot to be taken to the applet):

usub1

We start with a pretty ugly function that we’re integrating. But by using this substitution to morph space, we end up with a much nicer function. I mean, throw both of these up and ask your kids — which one of these would they rather find the integral of. They’ll say the one on the right! The u-substitution one. Although not perfect [2], it’s pretty kewl.

The applets are here:

One     Two     Three     Four     Five

And the applets are dynamic! You can change the lower and upper bounds on the x-f(x) graphs and the lower and upper bounds automatically change on the u-f(u) graph! But because math is awesome, the areas are preserved!

Some things I maybe would have done with the applets in my class:

  • Let kids play with the applets and get familiar with them.
  • For the first applet (starting simple), have kids count the boxes and estimate the area on one graph, and then do it on the other (careful though! the gridlines are different on the two graphs!). Whoa, they are always the same!
  • For the first applet (again, starting simple), ask them to drag the upper limit to the left of the lower limit. Explain what happens and why.
  • The second applet is my favorite! Put the lower limit at x=0. Drag the upper limit to the right. Explain what is happening graphically — and that tie that graphically understanding to the particular u-substitution chosen.
  • In the second applet, can students find three different sets of bounds which give a signed area of 0?
  • In the fourth applet, have students put the lower and upper bounds on x=6 and x=7. Have them calculate the average height of that function in that interval (the area is given!). Do they have visual confirmation of this average height for this interval?Now Looking at the u-graph, the bounds are now u=8 and u=10. Have them estimate the average height of that function in that interval (again, the area is given)! (The average height “halves” in order to compensate for the wider interval. It has to since the areas must be the same) Have students do this again for any lower and upper bounds for this graph. It will always work!
  • In the fifth applet, have students put the lower bound at x=0, and have them drag the upper bound to the right. What can they conclude about the areas of each of the pink regions on the x-f(x) graph? (Alternatively, you can ask: you can see from the u-f(u) graph that the signed area on the original graph will never get bigger than 1, no matter what bounds you choose. Try it! It is impossible! Armed with that information, can you conclude about the pink regions in original graph?)

I’m confident I had more ideas about how to use these when I made them [3]. But it was over a year ago and I haven’t really thought of them since. But anyway, I hope they are of some use to you. Even if you just show them to your kids cursorily to illustrate what graphically is going on when you are doing u-substitution. 

 ***

[1] Though I bet if you asked a class why they can use “substitution” when solving a system of equations, what the reasoning is behind this method, they might draw a bit of a blank… But that’s neither here nor there…

[2] What would actually be perfect would be a copy of individual Riemann Sum rectangles from the x-f(x) graph “leaving” the first graph, then in front of the viewer stretching/shrinking their height and width for the appropriate u-f(u) graph, and then floating over to the u-f(u) graph and placing itself at the appropriate place on the u axis. And then a second rectangle does that. And a third. And a fourth. You get the picture. But even though the height and width morph, the area of the original rectangle and the area of the new rectangle will be the same (or to be technical, very very close to the same, since we’re just doing approximations). In this sort of applet, you’d see the actual morphing. That’s what is hidden in my applets above. But that’s actually where the magic happens!

[3] I recall now I was going to make kids do some stuff by hand. For example: before they use the applets, kids would be given lower and upper x-bounds, and asked to calculate lower and upper u bounds. And then use the applets to confirm. Similarly, given lower and upper u-bounds, calculate lower and upper x-bounds. Use the applets to confirm.

Some Geogebra Fun

I have an awesome friend and colleague at my school who is a geogebra master. He has started keeping a blog — Geogebrart — posting fairly frequently some stunning, jaw-drapping mathematical art he created using this powerful program.  Check this recent one out — which happens to be one of my favorites! Dualities!

whatwhat

Although I know most of the basics of Geogebra, I have not yet progressed to the stage passed “novice.” However I really want to get there, because this program is so freaking awesome.

When I was at TMC14 this summer, there was a sesh run by John Golden, Audrey McLaren, and Jedidiah Butler. They are like Jedi masters of Geogebra (though I know Audrey will play coy and say she isn’t…). When I was there, I learned about conditional objects, and it was awesome. (The google doc they used to help people out is here.) In about 30 minutes, with the help of John Golden and some kind people near me, I was able to make a rinky-dinky geogebra file which has a triangle on it, and has three points on the three different sides. When you drag each point close to where an altitude of the triangle would hit that side, I had something like “WOW!” or “YOU DID IT!” pop up! And if you got all three points close, something like “ALL THREE?! YOU’RE A SUPERSTAR!” show up.

Okay, okay, I wasn’t going to show you it because it’s sooooo dumb. But heck, whatever, here it is. Click on the image to check it out.

triangle

Okay, you and me, we both know that file is totally useless a teaching tool. And it is gross looking. By all accounts, I should not be excited by it. But the weird thing was: I was really proud of it, and I wanted to show everyone around me what I created. Even though I know it was simplistic and useless, I wanted to create a file that did X and I was able to do it! Although it felt dumb to get psyched about it, I was so excited that I could create something that would do what I wanted it to — that I couldn’t do before!

Today I was again inspired by my colleague and friend’s geogebra art, so I wanted to create some of my own.

I was quickly able to make this in 10 minutes [click on the picture to go to the file and mess around with the parameters! cool things happen!]

zzz1My goal was to define a curve parametrically and then have — at a ton of points on the curve — a circle to be drawn so it would look like a tube. That ended up looking only moderately neat. So I changed it so that as one traveled on the parametric curve drawing the circles, the radius of the circles would change (based on some formula I fed it). The reason this wasn’t so hard for me? I knew all the commands to do this except for the parametric curve command, which was easy to figure out.

But then I wanted to try my hand at something that would take more than 10 minutes and that would challenge me. I wanted to have something “show” a sphere via the animated drawing of “slices” (ellipses). It was inspired by this beautiful gif, but I knew that was going to be too hard for me to start out with. So I decided I would start out with a simple sphere with slices going horizontally and vertically, with no rotation.

After somewhere between 90 and 120 minutes, I did it! (You can click on the gif to go to the file and play around with some of the parameters.)

zzzspheregifAlthough the image isn’t as cool as the one that took me 10 minutes to create, I’m way prouder of this. It is because it took a ton of learning and trial and error in order to figure out how to do this. The set of problems I encountered and somehow figured out:

  • I know how to create a single ellipse in the center of the circle, but how do I make another ellipse a certain distance away that still only touches the edge of the circle?
  • How do I make the ellipses “width” (minor axis) decrease so that it is fattest near the equator, and almost like a line near the poles of the sphere?
  • Without manually typing a zillion ellipses, how do I tell Geogebra to create all the vertical ellipses at once, and all the horizontal ellipses at once?
  • The way I was generating the ellipses resulted in a problem… once an ellipse “hit the pole”(became a point), it would turn into a hyperbola. So I needed to find a way to make sure that once an ellipse “hit the pole” it would disappear.

I figured all this stuff out! So even though the sphere doesn’t look nearly as cool as I’d like, I feel so much more accomplished for it than with the super-cool-looking circles of variable radii drawn on a parametrically-defined curve.

***

Note: it’s amazing how “simple” this sphere image is once you figure it out. Once you create three sliders:

t goes from -5 to 5 [incriments of 0.1]
StepSize1 goes from 0.05 to 2 [increments of 0.05]
StepSize2 goes from 0.05 to 2 [increments of 0.05]

and you enter the following two (that’s it!) geogebra commands:

Sequence[If[abs(t - n StepSize) < 5, x² / (25 - (t - n StepSize)²) + (y - t + n StepSize)² / (1 - sgn(t - n StepSize) (t - n StepSize) / 5)² = 1], n, -5 / StepSize 2, 5 / StepSize 2, 1]

Sequence[If[abs(t - k StepSize2) < 5, (x - t + k StepSize2)² / (1 - sgn(t - k StepSize2) (t - k StepSize2) / 5)² + y² / (25 - (t - k StepSize2)²) = 1], k, -5 / StepSize2 (2), 5 / StepSize2 (2), 1]

Then you’re done! Well, you should animate the t-slider to make it cycle through everything without you having to drag the slider!

Seriously, two commands, that’s all it takes. But hopefully from the commands themselves you can understand why it would take me so long to figure out…

Teacher Growth, the MTBoS, and TMC14

As usual, going to Twitter Math Camp has caused me to be all reflective and stuff. Barf. About myself and about this online community. And trust me, this self-introspection will be over soon and I’ll be back on my regularly scheduled program of procrastinating doing my prep work for school. But I should probably get it all out first, in one giant word-vomit. Ready? SPEW!

I’m a Hobbit

To begin with, an oft retweeted and favorited thing at TMC was this (and heck, I probably retweeted and favorited it):

I strongly don’t put myself in that category. That isn’t part of who I am. I don’t teach to save the world. I don’t see myself as changing students’s lives, nor is my goal to have students come back to me and say “your class changed my life.” I don’t blog to change math teaching. I don’t have grand ambitions or even care to think on such a large scale. It’s a nice sentiment, but it’s just not me. I’m like a hobbit, happy and content with my little corner. Working at things with a small scale. Getting an ah hah moment, or altering the way a student sees and understands mathematics, or helping a fellow teacher out with this or that. This is what I enjoy doing.

Inadequacy and Change

With that said, a lot of my thoughts around the mathtwitterblogosphere (MTBoS) and TMC in particular have come out of two things:

1. A post by Mo titled “I am a fraud” and as a follow up a post by Lisa Henry titled  “Hi My Name is Lisa” which resonated with me and with many others. Some key lines:

Mo: They were so honest, so completely naked, and I, wanting to join in “fit in” offered some of my fears but then as I awoke today I feel dirty. My heart is heavy, because I lied. Well I didn’t completely lie I just shared certain fears and strengths that manipulated people to see me the way I wanted them to see me. We were all skinny dipping but I had a flesh colored bathing suit on “with painted on abs”… And as I enter my 9th year of teaching, I could be entering my last year. There is a high possibility that I could be going into sales and this conference confirms my movement into that field, because I feel so inadequate….. so beyond inadequate.

Lisa: I am not the best math teacher. I am not an amazing math teacher. I have a LOT of work to do to improve. There. I said it. I wrote it in my blog and I am not taking it back. It is there in print. Ever since I have been involved with the Math Twitterblogosphere (MTBoS for short if you are not familiar), I have felt this inadequacy. I see what other teachers are doing in their classrooms. I have tried some things. Even blogged about what I have tried. But for the most part, I haven’t changed a whole lot in my teaching since I started Twitter almost 5 years ago.

2. A flex session held by Lisa Bejarano which was about how we leave TMC and change things — both in ourselves, and in our schools. I have personal notions about barriers involved changing things in my school, nor do I have the presumptuousness to say that I am The Person To Effect Change or that I Know The Right Ways. Because I too feel very much like Mo and Lisa in that I’m not “there” yet. I’m not a master teacher. However when it came to our discussion of how we change things in ourselves, Lisa B. threw up this great chart on the projector:

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At first, I was skeptical. I have this bad habit of seeing charts like this and immediately dismissing them. They take something complex and box it in to something simple. But you know, the more I thought and looked at it, the more it made sense to me.

For example, I’m teaching geometry next year, and I have tons of resources, a vision for what I want the course to look like, I think I have the skills needed, I have the motivation/incentives to do well. But I don’t have a way to go through the massive amounts of ideas and resources to actually move forward. I don’t have an action plan. So I’m in the middle of false starts. And it feels that way.

But what I want to focus on is missing skills — and the resulting anxiety. I was thinking about the times in my classroom when I didn’t just take a little step forward but dove right in to make a big change because I had a bigger vision I wanted to accomplish. I can think of two:

1. Implementing standards based grading in calculus (four years ago)
2. Running a class entirely through group-work (two years ago)

Although I advise people to take baby steps, and change slowly, those times I didn’t take that advice were the times I grew the most as a teacher. Those were also the times I felt the most anxiety. Why? Because I hadn’t yet developed the skills I needed. I didn’t know how to organize standards based grading in a way that would work. I didn’t know how to make sure I would catch the conceptual as well as the procedural in this system, nor how I would get synthesis of skills. I didn’t know how to make sure students worked well together. I didn’t know how to create actvities and lessons so that students would have to rely on each other to progress. But you know what? Without jumping in, I never would have gotten the skills needed.

Let me tell you: those were high anxiety times. They required a lot of emotional energy and a ton of time. But they were also times of immense growth for me.

Personal Inadequacy as Part-of-the-Deal

Now to the “me” part.

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I don’t feel like I’m a master teacher or close to it. And I feel confident with that assessment of myself, because who knows me better than me?

As part of that, I also often feel inadequate, and sometimes like a fraud. If I look only at the world of my school, I think I wouldn’t feel this way. I’d feel fine. I’d actually have very little incentive to change, because it’s a lot of work for no extra rewards and I am doing well by the kids (see the chart above). But because there is this much bigger world, which I am exposed to (namely the math-twitter-blogosphere), things are different.

I am constantly exposed to many things online. A lot of them are resources and lessons, but sometimes there are ideas about good teaching that I wouldn’t have access too. Like the importance of mathematical discourse (talking, writing), or to question the nature of assessments and what grades mean, or the importance of having students see each other as mathematical authorities. I am not exposed to these ideas in my school constantly, so I would not think that these are things I believe in. But being bombarded by all the stuff out there online and at TMC, and seeing what resonates with me (or what inspires me to change), is helping me (probably subconsciously) evolve my personal, theoretical framework about teaching and learning (thanks Dan Meyer).

And that is where the anxiety comes in. Because now my bar about what is good teaching has been thrust upwards. And now I have to work on reaching it. It isn’t that I feel competitive with others, but that I feel competitive with myself [1]. I have a drive to be my personal best, and to do the best by my kids.

So because of this exposure to great ideas for the classroom, and bigger ideas about what makes an effective classroom, I get caught up in feeling like I’m not doing a good job, and the anxiety hits me. And sometimes this nadir will last for months. I don’t feel like I’m doing a good enough job in the classroom. I haven’t given any formative assessments. Kids aren’t engaging in real mathematical discussion. I haven’t improved at all from the previous year. Heck, maybe I’ve even de-evolved. And I get in this cycle of anxiety. It sucks.

But it’s a double edged sword, because it is this anxiety that drives me, that pushes me. I enjoy the intellectual challenge it gives me. And at least for me, it’s this anxiety and this feeling of inadequacy, coupled with my own personal desire to better myself, that provides a productive tension. I recognize in myself that I need those lows and those feelings of anxiety in order to get better. It’s part of my own personal growth process. And as much as I wish I could be confident and grow without the feelings of inadequancy, I’ve come to realize that’s what works for me. At least for me.

I end with a tweet from Jami Danielle who pretty much summed this up for me, and makes this whole post just a bunch of verbal spewage (didn’t I say that at the beginning)?:

aaaaajami

 

 

[1] I suspect, though I do not know, that all this talk about “inadequacy” and how it resonates with so many people in the MTBoS and at TMC is tied up in some sort of cycle like this. Because of this, I don’t think it’s something to be “fixed” (e.g. how can we make it so when people come to TMC they don’t feel like crappy teachers?). At least I wouldn’t want someone to “fix” it for me.