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“Where there is no mathematics, there is no freedom” - Ed Frenkel
Not you. Not we. But I have to…
I am not going yet. I am not going far. One day though, I will be gone. I will be happier for it.
This is a long read. If you read anything, you must read John Baran’s letter. He symbolizes the exact intersection of my intentions of mathematics for the future.
On June 23, late in the afternoon, I got a phone call from a number in the state of Washington that I didn’t recognize. But, I knew who would be on the other end of the line.That would be Christopher Havens, a person serving 25 years for a serious crime. He is also a self-taught mathematician, whose story went viral all over the world in 2020. He is writing a book and has a movie deal with Hollywood.
In our almost one hour conversation, broken up every 20 minutes by the allotted time Christopher has per call, we dove deep into the common humanity of learning mathematics that is beautiful, transcending, and filled with redemption possibilities for those who seek it. While there were so many moments of connection and illumination, there was something said by Christopher that had a deep, almost cellular resonance.
“Being in prison puts a magnifying glass on the power of mathematics”
In those words, I found the greatest example of those who are furthest removed from mathematics and the living world, have the greatest potential of seeing the restorative magic of mathematics. It’s like, the people who have the largest delta between themselves and mathematics–including deep equity issues of access/daily living conditions–have the most to gain. More than you and I.
And, in that moment I realized where my calling is–with The Prison Math Project.
And earlier this month, I got an email from Claire Finlayson, author of Dispatches From Ray’s Planet: A Journey Through Autism. She is also the editor of the Prison Math Project. Here is the letter from John she sent. Please keep in mind that the letter has been heavily edited for spelling and grammar. That said, the heart and soul of John’s relationship with mathematics today and his life experiences thus far is pretty agnostic to such editing.
I am writing you today to explain what the Prison Mathematics Project means to me.
I am a 36-year-old autistic male confined in a Washington State prison. I am not talking about what I see myself as, but what those around me think of me. To them I am just Prisoner Number 353800.
From the age of seven I was in the foster care system. I moved through 31 foster homes, mental institutions and group homes. There was no stability in my life. Then I found math: a safe and constant thing for me to understand. When I came to prison six years ago I had math to keep me company, but it was simple math, because without my calculus books and other texts I had no way of continuing my math education, so it began to slip out of my head. I lost my ability to do advanced calculus. I have been put in one mental health unit after another because of my autism, and this has made it hard for me to talk to anyone about advanced mathematics, so I spend my time working with people to get the math part of their GED done. I have written this explanation of where I was before the Prison Mathematics Project so you can see how lost and alone I felt.
If you asked me what the Prison Mathematics Project means to me I would tell you hope. Hope that I can make something of myself. Hope that I am not a lost cause. Hope that with help and understanding, through something that I love, I will never set foot in a prison again. I have hope. This is what the Prison Mathematics Project means to me.
If mathematics can reach inmates in prison and offer such restorative power to one’s life, then we have zero excuses for not providing the highest quality of mathematics to ALL our students. We also have zero excuses for not rethinking about the most accessible and internally satisfying purpose for learning mathematics.
“There is a spirituality to mathematics that few people understand” - David Krumholtz, Charlie Epps(NUMB3RS)
I am also winding down on writing my final book, Sonic Seducer: Lust For Life With Our Heaviest Moments and Memories of Rock and Rock. It will be my best book, as it is the status update of everything that I am as I close out my fifties. But, I have come to realize that I was writing to create an escape hatch from a world that I was losing more and more faith in everyday.
That would be the world of math education.
Around two decades ago, my greatest mentor and friend, Peter Harrison, said–quite bluntly I should add– that mathematics was dead. That it would go the way of Latin. While I didn’t dispute his ostensibly sensationalist remark, I thought I would make a go of it to see if I could salvage some remains of it with kindred spirits. That is why I have worked almost exclusively in the space of math history, narrative, storytelling, and culturally responsive mathematics–and always zeroing my eye on content.
We don’t only like rock music for its generic idea of beats, patterns, grooves, etc. We love it for specific bands, albums, songs, and moments in songs. Same with mathematics. We can’t just “love math”. It should be content specific. If not, we are drifting away from the core idea of mathematics and the teaching of mathematics–we need to be lifelong learners first and foremost.
The stunning number relationships in a perfect number. The Collatz sequence, and the eventual “collapse” of every number back down to 1 with operation instructions based on odd or even. The sudden awareness of possibilities in space when you see a cube “move” into a tesseract, a 4D object. The transitional power and beauty when going from a secant slope to one that is tangent. The captivating world of fractals and their rich history, indigenous only to Africa.
We are no longer being led by the open sea of content. We are moving with the narrow rivers of pedagogy, appeasing ourselves with prioritizing delivery over what is actually delivered.
The mathematics that gifted transformative light to Christopher Havens came via number theory. The same area of mathematics that consumed the Ramanujan–even on his deathbed.
Twenty years ago, there were many workshops I could pick from that pointed me at the beauty of mathematics–it was the initial source of where I gained much of my content knowledge. Today, it’s almost impossible to come by. Just like in the 70’s with music, where the culture of rock and roll, attention to listening to whole albums, and mooning over so many powerful moments in classic songs was predominant, same thing with mathematics education. There was a time where content was queen. Those days are dead.
In 2018, at the Annual NCTM Conference in Washington, I met a kindred spirit, Bronwyn Welch, from my birth country–Australia. She echoed Peter’s lament about mathematics vanishing from these kinds of events. We recently reconnected, where she shared with me what seems like the starting point of trying to find our way back to the mathematical world we have insidiously discarded.
Yarn: An Aboriginal English word that describes an informal conversation or storytelling in a culturally safe environment.
I love how Bronwyn referenced a word that is not only the essence of mathematics, but is also something that respects the wisdom of the Aboriginal people. We need to gather in such spaces, conscious to be in circular formations, and share our deepest hopes centered around mathematics. In our video chat, our conversations swirled around mathematics and relationships, questioning where are the safe and inviting spaces for students to do mathematics–as, by design, most of these spaces are suited for teachers.
Then, there is also this:
Content is student facing. Pedagogy is teacher facing.
Extract all the math problems we give our students. Where would they go in the above graph? Most of them–and history, including current practices–would be between Boredom and Anxiety.
Great content has been around for thousands of years. Great pedagogy maybe ten. And, where is all the attention these days? Huddled around teacher-centric stuff. The quality of mathematics is taking a backseat to pedagogy. That’s even if it is in the car at all. If we go by Peter’s words, mathematics was left back at a gas station far, far away and long, long time ago.
And, pedagogy, the word, wasn’t even around when Peter Harrison rightfully declared the subject of mathematics dead. If you met Peter, you would understand how and why he made that dire prediction–which was not made recklessly. In 20 years since, I have had few encounters where the discussion was strictly the beauty and timelessness of a great mathematics, often nestled in the elegant, “reason poems”(Paul Lockhart) of algebra.
Math education is big business. Math education is also a political football. Good luck talking about the inclusion of number, game, and graph theory in elementary grades when test scores, Science of Math movement(questionable pedagogy on amphetamines), and attacks on DEI initiatives(which have culturally responsive math baked in) are sucking up so much of the oxygen in math education. Media and government are picking the same low-hanging fruit–test scores and some self-serving need to get back to “basics”--to constantly horsewhip math education into something that can only be described as inert. Almost 100 years ago, Alfred North Whitehead, mathematician, philosopher, writer, and educator warned society of this kind of knowledge.
“Education with inert ideas is not only useless, it is harmful”
Changing math education for better math content and more human-centric purpose that is aligned to Christopher Haven’s story is a task that even Sysiphus would have balked at. At least he got the boulder to move.
In spite of writing three books weaving in many of the themes above and doing keynotes on the topic, I honestly feel like my efforts have not had any systemic impact in the messy world of math education. Adding to that, I must confess that the edu celebrity culture and unchecked nods to prevailing whiteness in math education have been discouraging obstacles to navigate–always feel like I have been paddling upstream with a tiny oar.
Before someone accuses me of being an edu-celebrity, let me throw some cold water on that right now. And yes, the word “accuse” should always accompany that synthetic word. Relishing being one isn’t anything one should aspire to–unless you want to make a lot of money.
I have slept on a basement couch for 5 years in a rental home. I cohabitate with my ex-wife to co-parent our kids. Ever since the business–The Right Angle– I tried to start after I left teaching burned down in 2015, it’s been an uphill climb financially. However, living most of my 50’s with an impoverished perspective also gave me the gift of gratitude. The smallest gains in my life are eternally magnified.
It’s why I am probably the happiest person I know. Money and fame would compromise that. As such, I even have rebuffed a speaking fee with “I will only come if you give me half”. This is already on top of knowing that being a POC, I have been sometimes paid less. Far less.
Even with the idea of equity being such a critical issue and showing up at so many math conferences, the end result is that the lens of equity was never widened to include the equity of mathematical content. Do we teach math history? Do we teach number theory? Do we teach algebra with the respect that it deserves? All discussions about equity center around metrics of socioeconomic success. The vector for learning mathematics is always pointed externally towards money. Any other purpose is either muted or non-existent. Equity without a robust audit of the actual mathematics we give our students isn’t equity. It’s giving all students equal access to the same flavorless bouillabaisse of math topics.
The pedagogy is about competence and performance. It is not about lifelong awe and wonder.
Based on Ed Frenkel’s quote, Christopher Havens is freer than most of our students, who have to trudge through tepid mathematics with scorching hot testing conditions. It’s an irony that the Fool character in Shakespearean plays would have dropped like a hot mic in a Final Act.
The current state of math education would like to believe that it is getting closer to the shores of equity. Just look at some conference posters, as they show a diversity of faces. Upon closer inspection, it would show that this is where the diversity stops. White speakers own the domain of pedagogy/content. BIPOC speakers are relegated to still doing the heavy lifting on equity issues. So, while all the important topics are covered, they are not covered equitably.
And, if one is realistic and wants the unvarnished truth, they won’t be for quite some time.
Ironically, I do see hope. But, not in the traditional, heavily monetized world of math education. That would be in the space that you are reading this blog–Human Restoration Project. In the coming months, with some hopeful grants, I hope to start to build and curate a math curriculum that prioritizes content, purpose, and progressive and/or marginalized communities.
As well, I have had a chance to look over The California Framework. I especially have paid attention to Chapter 1: Mathematics For All: Purpose, Understanding, and Connection.
This framework lays out an approach to curriculum and instruction that harnesses and builds on students’ curiosity and sense of wonder about the mathematics they see around them. Students learn that math enriches life and that the ability to use mathematics fluently – flexibly, efficiently and accurately – empowers people to influence their lives, communities, careers, and the larger world in important ways.
This is the most up to date math curriculum I have seen in articulating the power and potential of mathematics in all lives. It’s not perfect, but no curriculum ever has been.
I will still be at some of my favorite, smaller conferences like CMC-South. But, next year, 2024, the year I turn 60, will be my last year in this space.
I will most likely be in “prison”, working with our most marginalized and stigmatized population, doing number theory, telling stories of Sophie Germain, and hopefully finding the elusive humanity of binding math content that I set out to find over two decades ago. I will also be working with HRP in bringing the richest ideas of The California Framework to their interdisciplinary professional development that has been built–to humanize education once and for all.
Look for updates in this space in my mathematical work with The Prison Math Project and Human Restoration Project. Those are the vectors that are aligned to my purpose and passion in education. Those are the places offering hope that mathematics can truly be rehumanized through content and relationships.
These have been the guiding pillars of learning and teaching for my entire career. I need to now follow them to new experiences and adventures…
Don’t bend; don’t water it down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly. - Anne Rice