Math Munch: Pointing at the Moon

Math Munch has changed my classroom. It’s changed my students, and it’s changed me. These changes have been so vital that it’s actually a little difficult for me to place myself in my old shoes, pre-Math Munch.

Here are two stories that can help illustrate part of what’s happened.

My first year of teaching at Saint Ann’s, I taught a class of fifth graders. It was a fantastic class, and I feel like in many ways I cut my teeth as a teacher with them. I bring them up because at the end of the year, they asked to play a game of Jeopardy, as they had a couple of times previously. This time I said yes. I chose some categories—both mathematical and not—and put them up on the chalkboard.

Turns out I have a photo from that exact day!

Turns out I have a photo from that exact day!

After breaking up into teams, we started playing. I noticed that my students were only picking from the non-math categories. Even then I realized on some level that this made sense—that feeling like you’re getting away with something is a pretty strong motivator. Still, at some point during (or maybe after) the game I asked them about it, because a part of me was a little hurt, I think. I remember making a little speech, about how I thought we’d had a great year together and done a lot of interesting math, and I wanted to know what was up with their category selections.

Their answers were of one voice and so sweet: We love you! We like you! We think you’re great! Don’t think that we don’t like you or your class, because we do!

And then I said how I was very glad that they liked me and the class, and that I liked them, too. But more than them liking me or the class, I wanted them to like math. That if we had done this whole year together and they didn’t feel any closer to mathematics, then I felt like I hadn’t really done my job.

It was a pretty serious moment. I’m glad, though, that I didn’t take all the air out of the room, as the photo above testifies.

I think that this experience was part of the seed that eventually brought me to Math Munch.

At the end of this past year, I asked my seventh graders to fill out a survey to help me to place them into their eighth grade algebra classes.

eoysurvey

There were lots of useful things said. There were also plenty of sweet things said about our class and me personally. But a lot was also said about particular structures, both explicit and implicit, that I’ve incorporated into my classroom. Something that particularly warmed my heart about the above response is that it doesn’t mention me, but it does talk about things that I value, and it mentions Math Munch.

finger-moon-hoteiThere is a Buddhist saying to the effect that when you point out the moon to someone, it’s necessary that they look beyond your finger in order to find the moon. Otherwise, they might just stare at your finger!

As teachers, there are as many ways to share mathematics as there are to share ourselves. The personal connections I make with my students are important to me. Perhaps at this point—in comparison with seven years ago—I might even say that they are primary to me. And my students’ relationships with me and their relationships with mathematics are of course intertwined and connected. That’s a joy, and I wouldn’t change it.

But I also want my students to have relationships with mathematics that go beyond me. I don’t want them to get stuck on my finger and miss the moon. I want my students to have a connection to mathematics that they can return to and carry with themselves, independent of me. Math Munch helps me to do that. It’s a place away from myself where I can point, a window that is mostly transparent and that shows the great beyond. Math Munch moves the reality of mathematics from my own experience and imagination into theirs, which makes it way easier to point to and way easier for them to catch sight of.

I bet Math Munch could help you and your students shoot for the moon, too.

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4 responses to “Math Munch: Pointing at the Moon

  1. This is a beautiful post, Justin. I’ve noticed since I began teaching how one of the best things I could do as a teacher was figure out how to get out of the way, and help my students have as direct an interaction with the math as possible. Pointing at the moon is a perfect metaphor, and captures the paradoxical nature of our job as teachers. We have to use our students’ focus on us to draw them beyond ourselves.

    • Hi Dan! Thanks for saying so. I like your phrase, “as direct an interaction with the math as possible”. Giving students experiences where they experience the charm and magic of mathematics—and not me as charmer or magician—is way fun and way fruitful. Thanks for dropping by!

  2. As a teacher-to-be, you’re given many different things you can use to teach, but seldom are you presented with a meaningful and broad enough concept that it can be applied effectively to all areas of math. And with only 3 semesters left to go, ideas like this become even more helpful in sparking new ideas so I thank you!

    • I’m glad you caught a spark from reading my post, K. :D
      You’re right in saying that as teachers we’re often offered tools, but not always a broad picture for their use. You might enjoy reading a reflection I wrote about this thought here.
      I hope you’ll find many more sparks for your thinking and teaching through the mathtwitterblogosphere. Good luck with your studies!

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