No Calculators Allowed…

Though I am an ELA teacher, I frequently find myself discussing maths with teachers and admin alike. I find there to be a great lot of intrigue and inquiry within mathematics, which is, as if by law, completely stripped from most math classes. Instead of spending time with great mysteries, rich histories and discoveries, and various paradoxes and puzzles, we drill and kill problems until the blood is drained and the spirit has vaporized leaving behind the husk of a Pearson text. It would be one thing if this was occurring and students received frequent apologies and door prizes for trudging through the experience, but that’s not at all what happens. Instead, everyone questions why these modern, young, technology obsessed, spoiled, and egotistical children don’t appreciate and understand the practical importance of the paper worksheets, or online MathXL worksheets, or Mathia worksheets, or Carnegie worksheets, or whatever other hardback or digital version you choose. It truly is all the same. To think students completing 25 problems from some self-grading software is any different than 25 problems on paper is absurd.

Pause: let me articulate that I am, at this moment, critiquing a program and curriculum, not teachers. Nearly every math teacher I speak with tends to agree with me (to a point), in that there is an extreme lack of passion and interest in a standard math classroom. Usually, our paths fork around the time I question the validity and importance of a great lot of what is taught after 6th-7th grade (e.g., finding the hypotenuse of a triangle or completing linear or nonlinear equations without using a calculator). The latter truly kills me. With absolute and earnest sincerity, I am interested in understanding why so many math teachers need students to do math without the tools created for doing so. I’ve even heard some math teachers arguing that pencil and paper was too much. That everyone not only needs to enjoy and understand math, but it must be done in your head (even though students are constantly asked to show their work). It’s quite a conundrum. If students need to be proficient at mental math, why the emphasis on showing work? If students are tasked with getting correct answers, why not give them the proper tools for the job? Would you ask ELA students to write without pens/pencils? Would you ask musicians to perform without instruments? Would you expect a civil engineer to construct anything (such as a bridge) without using a device that can articulate precise and error free (aside from user error, I suppose), calculations? So, why can’t students use any tools near to them to complete the assignments they are given. Perhaps the issue isn’t the tool, but the problem…

Surely there are many math educators right now asserting that their class is nothing like this, and I believe it. However, what I see and hear (a majority of the time) falls into this pit trap. I’ve seen math consistently pushed for its “practical” nature or “usefulness”, which, for so many, is absolutely untrue. I’ve spoken with many math educators wanting more conversations in their class regarding “hows” and “whys”, but the end result is normally discussions aren’t a part of my standards or there’s no time for PBL or discussions (due to the sheer amount of content per year). It was at this moment I decided math and English should be taught together.

*Sidenote: I believe math can be considered a form of rhetoric and could be taught as such. I’ve written on the matter here.

During my third year of teaching, I embedded ELA into every other class. Long story short, I didn’t have my own classroom. I co-taught with all the other educators in the building. (If you’d like to read more on embedded English there is an interview here.) Though it was incredibly impactful all around, mathematics seemed the most advantageous. We read Leonard Mlodinaw’s The Drunkard’s Walk providing rich discussions over incredibly dense (but intriguing) mathematical concepts. Sure, these were freshmen in high school, and this novel was not algebra 1 material, but who cares? It was engaging students. We were having engaging dialogues in the math classroom with students having the opportunity to ask questions they were incredibly interested in but previously had assumed were irrelevant, pointless, or had no time for. The math teacher saw his classes blossom and engage him in conversations regarding one of his personal passions, math! Was every question state-standard correlated? No, of course not. But it didn’t matter. The conversations were beyond standard math practices; they were building a framework for students to engage with, personally, the experience of learning and understanding mathematics. These discussions eventually led us to questioning the chronological approach to mathematics. Why algebra 1 first? Why is algebra 1 separated into two parts? Why can’t geometry be first? Why can’t it all be mixed? Is any of it actually necessary? We dug into the history of math, discovering its derivations from Arabic. We looked at how Greeks and Romans used math for gambling and war. We were discovering. We were learning. And, regarding necessity…

There are enough studies asserting higher mathematics is unnecessary for the majority of the populations daily functions. In fact, if you give a final algebra or geometry exam to every teacher in a high school, I can promise you only a select few will be successful (I’ll let you guess that select few). And there are studies suggesting how important math is in your daily life — yet these articles only suggest basic mathematical principles taught in primary and middle school are used daily while asserting this as proof of high school math’s importance. Or this article suggesting my firm understanding of algebra, (including aerodynamics, trajectory, the formula for force, etc.), is the only reason I am aware of my fundamental understanding of muscle control and spatial reasoning (i.e., throwing trash in a trashcan). Stop. That’s absurd. Math is exciting without it having to be further forced down our throats. Puzzles are fun. Sudoku is in many daily newspapers and purchased apps. People love building prop rockets, and gardening, and making a ship sail, and building games, and Rubik’s Cubes. Math is fun. It doesn’t need to be taught with ultimatums suggesting if we don’t continue to teach high school math in the same fashion students will never understand personal finances or be able to throw balls of paper away. Math is interesting and fun because it is.

During this embedded course, there were some sacrifices. The math instructor I was working with agreed to sacrifice many standards to make room for PBL and discussions. Students talked, listened to podcasts, built remixed versions of “corn hole” with soy-based products and power tools (which were not soy-based), and did just as well on their state tests and final exams as previous classes (and future classes). Students were engaged with mathematics because they were using it. We didn’t get the box of compasses and protractors out for the problems in a text, we got them out when students needed tools specific to the task they were engaging in. And we let them use those tools. They were in charge of learning. They were engaged in the aspects they found to be interesting. No, they didn’t memorize every formula from the text or software for that year; however, they seeded a long lost interest in understanding and learning the rich history of mathematics.