November 11, 2017

Explore Math Project and DREAM

Last week was both the end of the quarter and ATMNE. I got the chance to see Tracy Zager talk (both her keynote and her workshop) and reflect on how first quarter went. Tracy's keynote was about mathematical inquiry. One method of allowing kids to ask the questions is to provide students time to play with math. Her daughter wondered why we DEAR (drop everything and read) but never DREAM (drop everything and math). After the talk, some of us who teach high school were discussing what this might look like at our level. I suggested that my version of Explore Math is one option, after all one of the columns is titled play!

This year's version of Explore Math asks students to explore something from one column per quarter and then share briefly with the class. I assigned it in all three sections of Algebra 2 as well as my honors precalculus. I've really struggled with my Algebra 2 classes and part of it is that they don't enjoy math, at all. They see every aspect of the subject as painful and it is taking every teacher tactic in my bag to convince them that math might be interesting to think about. I hoped that they would find something to grab their interest when completing this project. However, students continued to resist - I'm too shy to present, none of those 17+ options appeal to me, I don't know how to [fill in the blank]. When the first person presented on a mathematician they realized that I wasn't asking for a giant research project and almost all decided to also look up a mathematician, but there wasn't much exploration of math happening. Don't get me wrong, it was awesome to see my diverse students represented in the diverse mathematicians they chose but most didn't even look up the kind of math they studied. Maybe step one needed to be seeing that someone like them did math before they could be convinced to take another tentative step toward enjoying math? Here are the statistics from the first round:

61% mathematician
0% didn't do
2 recent articles, 2 recent topics, 1 unsolved problem

Alg 2 (3 sections):
64% mathematician
32% didn't do
1 problem

59% mathematician
36% didn't do
1 grad level math

59% mathematician
41% didn't do

I'm thankful I made this a year long project so that now for the remaining three quarters students will have to choose other categories. It seems wrong to be forcing my students to play, but after many years of learning to resent math it's going to take a strong shove toward playfulness to get them to consider it as something that they could engage with independently. (These results have a little bit to do with the project being homework, but I provided time in class on several occasions to work on this or other make up work.)

Tracy asserted that allowing kids to ask the questions is 1) intellectually honest, 2) a good way to teach and 3) important for equity and access. I have been trying harder to make the structure of class transparent to students. For example, I've shared with them the 'secret' that mathematicians are lazy! So they look for patterns to make their work easier. Most lessons involve us playing with problems to test some ideas and then generalizing our results, but when students aren't driving the questions it doesn't feel like playing. A recent lesson on matrices flowed beautifully for some students but others were so caught up in the drudgery of multiplying matrices (because integer operations require significant brainpower) that they weren't seeing the overarching ideas on their own. Turns out it's hard to recognize the significance of the identity matrix when you forget whether 5*0 is 5 or 0. So we're working our way toward 1) and 2) with some students feeling like mathematicians each day. What about 3)?
"The person who poses the question is the person who frames the debate."
When Tracy said this sentence I stopped, wrote it down, tweeted it out and only partially heard her next several sentence as I grappled with this huge revelation. Politics can be decided based on who poses the question and how they frame it. How do I give my students this power? How do I make sure that my students recognize this so they can question the premise of others questions? And, honestly, how do I even consider doing any of this when I have two new preps this year? I look back on the things I did last year and regret how many of them I've let drop this year. And then I remember that I only had two preps last year and I'd taught both of them at least 3 times before. While I should cut myself some slack I'm not going to give up entirely. Up next is solving systems using matrices with technology which sounds like a good time to mix in some messy data, hopefully I can find some worthy data sets for students to play with. They can ask the questions. They can judge others' questions. We can do some aspect of this important work each class and hope that by the end of the year students see their relationship with mathematics with a bit more positivity.


  1. Tina, this menu is something I've been looking for!Do you have a rubric to go with it?

    1. So glad it looks useful! I was less interested in grading and more interested in experiencing. That said I gave kids 4 points for completing it, 1 of the four was for sharing in class. Everyone who did it got all 3 points for completing the task. This quarter I didn’t require anything interactive but we might build to it by 4th quarter.