Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Draw a Mathematician

One day many years ago I was teaching 6th grade math at a middle school, when I was having an incredibly hard time getting my students to think like mathematicians. It seemed that no amount of cajoling, encouraging, and cheerleading on my part could convince my students to get out of their passive (passive-aggressive?) blob-like frame-of-mind. It was clear to me that I was dealing with a much greater problem than the mere math problem at hand.

In one of those moments that are best characterized as "half desperation and half inspiration" I asked my students to put down their pencil and take out  a piece of scratch paper. I told my students that in a moment they would be sketching a quick picture after they listened to me describe the scenario.

"Imagine," I said, "that I have invited a mathematician to speak to our class."

I continued. "That mathematician is on the other side of our door and is about to enter this room. The door opens. In comes the mathematician who then stands at the front of the room."

I scanned the room of 6th graders in wrapt attention. Some were even closing their eyes to truly see the mathematician. "In your minds eye," I continued "what is the mathematician wearing? What does the mathematician look like? Sound like?"

I then told my students to take a few moments to sketch the mathematician that they imagined in their mind. "NO peeking at your neighbor's drawing!" I admonished. Of course, students asked if they would be graded on the quality of their drawing (ugh...grades...that is another blog post), which of course, I said they would not.

Students quietly drew for several minutes, some even getting the colored pencils and marking pens from the back of the room. I wandered around the room looking at the drawings. Here is what I saw:

Of the 30 students in the class, 29 drew a picture of a male. Only one student - a girl - drew a female mathematician. Now here is the kicker...every drawing portrayed the mathematician in a negative light. Broken glasses. Messy hair. Horns and a devil's tail. Fangs. Every student included some sort of indicator that being a mathematician was to be AVOIDED not admired.

No wonder I was having a hard time getting my students to act like mathematicians! A mathematician - to my students - was a horrible, horrible thing.

I immediately started a campaign to rectify this. I tore down the numbers hanging from the ceilings to indicate table groups and replaced them with names of mathematicians. No more Table 1 or Table 2. Now it was the Euclid Table. The Germain Table. The Ramanujan Table. Moreover, I called the students by their table name. "Would the Brahmaguptas and the Eulers come to the front of the room for small-group?" Students began calling themselves by their "math name".

Scattered throughout the year, I would read from Mathematical Scandals, by Theoni Pappas, showing my students that some mathematicians have pretty awesome (almost rock star-like) lives.
It was always pretty easy to connect something we were currently learning with a short and fascinating tale of some mathematician.

I never did a follow-up experiment with my students to measure growth in this area. What would the pictures of the imaginary mathematician look like today? I'm not sure...

I have a bit of insight as to what students might draw. They might draw me!

I am now a mathematics instructional coach for TK-5 in a school district that recently adopted Eureka Math. To assist with the transition to this wonderful curriculum I began making videos for every single lesson, so that teachers could first learn the mathematics from me before they have to teach it to their students the next day. Then parents began watching the videos at home to help their kids with homework. Inevitably, students see my videos as well.

Daily I get comments from students around the nation like...

When I am visiting classrooms at an elementary school, students bring up their math booklets for me to autograph. 

Recently, teachers have begun scheduling Google Hangouts with me to meet their students.

Other adults are now sending in questions...

The cool thing about all this is not how it makes me feel. (Although, it does indeed make me very, very pleased.) The best thing is that I am seen as a MATHEMATICIAN. Male, yes. But no broken glasses. No messy hair. No horns and devil's tail.

It seems that my proudest contribution to this instructional coach thing is that - in my own little way - I have not only gotten teachers to grow, but students too!

What things do YOU do to make being a mathematician something to aspire to?
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