Thursday, October 23, 2014

Percy Jackson's Math Class

[I haven't written this post yet, and I know it's going to be more rambly than usual. Fair warning.]

My eldest child has been a big fan of Percy Jackson. Me, too, to be honest. I'm reading The Blood of Olympus now. The first Percy Jackson series is one of the few non-graphic novels my son read by choice. So this was a natural click for me: The Percy Jackson Problem at the New Yorker by Rebecca Mead.

It begins with a quote from Neil Gaiman (another family favorite):
“I don’t think there is such a thing as a bad book for children,” he argued, adding that it was “snobbery and … foolishness” to suggest that a certain author or particular genre might be a baleful influence upon young reading minds—be it comic books or the works of R. L. Stine. Fiction is a “gateway drug” to reading, Gaiman said. “Every child is different. They can find the stories they need to, and they bring themselves to stories. A hackneyed, worn-out idea isn’t hackneyed and worn out to them.” Well-meaning adults, he continued, can easily kill a child’s love of reading: “Stop them reading what they enjoy, or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like, the 21st-century equivalents of Victorian ‘improving’ literature. You’ll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and worse, unpleasant.”
If you're a math teacher, how can you read this and not connect? We've been feeding students, as a profession, "worthy-but-dull" math for ages. (Worthy when it was good, that is. When it was bad, we're talking Tartarus.)

The author's argument is the counter to this idea that all reading is good.
Riordan’s books prompt an uneasy interrogation of the premise underlying the “so long as they’re reading” side of the debate—at least among those of us who want to share Neil Gaiman’s optimistic view that all reading is good reading, and yet find ourselves by disposition closer to the Tim Parks end of the spectrum, worried that those books on our children’s shelves that offer easy gratification are crowding out the different pleasures that may be offered by less grabby volumes.
I don't like this argument for reading. But I have made similar arguments in math. After a steady diet of exercises, students have no interest in problems.

But I think what I mean is that students have no experience with problems. The engagement that comes from finding a really meaty one. The question is whether reading Percy Jackson is really reading. I would argue that spending time on Tumblr is not reading (a current teenager discussion), and wonder if graphic novels are reading. (Aforementioned comic-obsessed son.)

I think this is an issue K-12. In elementary, there is a danger that teachers don't believe that students can do real problems. In high school, a desire to have the students do the basics first. Working with preservice and inservice teachers I try to stress and give experience with contexts that are problematic, but accessible. If it's not a problem, it's not doing math, no matter how many numbers and operations are involved.

Just being letters and words doesn't make it reading?

The author isn't so concerned with the Percy Jackson books, as with the forthcoming book of Greek myths as told by Riordan, writing in Percy's voice.
While the D’Aulaires wrote that “Persephone grew up on Olympus and her gay laughter rang through the brilliant halls,” Percy’s introduction to the story of Demeter’s daughter reads, “I have to be honest. I never understood what made Persephone such a big deal. I mean, for a girl who almost destroyed the universe, she seems kind of meh.”
It seems to me that this is some of what the common core struggle is about. Parents don't recognize newer curricula as math. (Which, of course, really has nothing to do with the common core in most cases; the Common Core gave them something to be against.)

The author closes with this concern:
What if instead of urging them on to more challenging adventures on other, potentially perilous literary shores, it makes young readers hungry only for more of the palatable same? There’s a myth that could serve as an illustration here. I’m sure my son can remind me which one.
Ooh, clever. I'm sure she knows which myth. What if after doing Desmos and Three Acts investigations, students don't want to do hackneyed word problems from the end of the chapter? That's probably not fair. Will they not be interested in the real problems of calculus, geometry, analysis and algebra? I think if we had a Percy Jackson parallel in math, the greater numbers of young people interested in math would mean a boom in STEM fields. The Percy Jackson problem? We should all have such problems.

This post started when I discovered no way to comment on the article. Because I wanted to share my daughter's response. And I want to think of this in terms of math, too. Here's Ysabela:
If they were arguing against, like, Twilight, where the language use is bad because the author has no writing experience, AND the plot and ideas are unoriginal/problematic, then I would agree with them. When Twilight becomes people's standard for literature, they start accepting total crap without a second glance, which is bad.
But Riordan understands language? And his plots (at least in the original series) were good? I'm not saying it was Harry Potter, but Percy Jackson was quality, and saying it wasn't just because the language is accessible to people who aren't scholars is just... really elitist. Like I know a lot of people who find reading really, really hard, but were able to enjoy Percy Jackson because it actually made sense to them. Plus, the series was narrated by a teenage boy, it was realistic.
And don't even get me STARTED on the D'Aulaires, they're SO AWFUL. They watered down the myths so much they were almost unrecognizable, "for kids," and then wrote it at like a college reading level. Plus they organized it like total tools. I can't express in words how much I would have rather had a Riordan book of myths than the D'Aulaires when I was younger.
Hello Katie @ Society 6
As she steps out the door now, she's railing against having spent two weeks on factoring. Because the last day before the mini fall break they learned the quadratic formula. "And it always works!" Do you know why it works? "He showed us from \(ax^2+bx+c\). It's extra credit on the test." How much more dangerous is it that she believes math is that pointless and uninteresting?

So, I think I'll side with Neil Gaiman on this one.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Such a Thing as Free

A friend found his new-to-him school in need of Algebra I and Geometry textbooks - for cheap or free. I took the Twitters, and people responded quickly and generously. Thought I should collect their suggestions.

Free Curricula
My first suggestion was Geoff Krall's (@emergentmath) Problem Based Learning maps. Amazing work. It's a worklife dream to develop a collaborative site like this where we could all link our best lessons and do some informal lesson study.

My second suggestion was Illustrative Mathematics, Algebra and Geometry (plus everything else).

Then #mtbos hit the gas:
  • David Coffey (@delta_dc) reminded me of the Georgia Common Core Materials.
    When he wasn't Khan-baiting.
    This is where I would start. Very complete, a lot of excellent lessons and compatible web resources, even including 3 Act structure stuff. 
  •  Bridget Dunbar (@BridgetDunbar)  ·  out of Utah: Mathematics Vision Project.  They follow integrated sequence...but good materials.
  • Engage NY, Algebra and Geometry (but complete K-12, math and ELA).
    Inconsistent quality to me, but a lot of good stuff and assessments are there, too.
    Lisa Bejarano (@lisabej_manitou) recommended one of these two.
    Dan Anderson (@dandersod) noted it, but does not love it.
  •  Macomb ISD Math (@MISDMath)  ·  have you looked at the EMATHS materials?
    That's the online materials for Michigan's virtual schools. New to me.  Looks thorough, with PD materials, lesson plans, activities-based and assessments.
  • @geonz  shared Algebra2go. Early, online algebra curriculum with videos and homework.
Other Ideas
  • Peg Cagle (@pegcagle)  suggested: Visit Abebooks for old Key Curriculum Press materials-brilliant rigorous & coherent-a bargain at full price, now available for a few bucks.
    I noticed some IMP stuff there. Love IMP.
  • Justin Lanier (@j_lanier)  ·  There are the Exeter and Park School problem sets, which are freely available.
    At Exeter they have been problem-based for a long time, in 12 student classes. Read more about their Harkness method.
    The Park School curriculum is available on request, but you may have to nag them.
  • Raymond Johnson (@MathEdnet)  ·  Not as cheap as they used to be, but College Prepatory Mathematics is worth considering.
    Samples here; those are good stuff.
I also let him know about the single serving sites:
That list lives on my Reading Recommendations page. I also put in a plug for GeoGebra (of course).

If you have experience with any of these things, or know of other resources, please list them in the comments. And thanks to everybody who responded or retweeted.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Poetical Practices

#35! Angelou's #1, but there's no way she'll make
it through conference play without a loss.
I got a chance to hear Billy Collins last night, thanks to family friend Elizabeth.

I enjoy poetry a lot, but don't read as much as I would like.  I have virtually none committed to memory, despite thinking that would be very cool. I don't write it, but have been wondering this past year how you even get started.

He was charming, lovely voice, aware of the audience and built his set of poems like a jazz musician, making sure to hit the hits, but improvising based on conditions, inspirations and audience response. For example he read this poem, To My Favorite 17 Year Old High School Girl, which may be his biggest smash: (around 5:30)

We bought that book - it is a lovely retrospective with new poems including the one he and Colbert read.

In our reading, he had me right away; before his first poem he talked about how nice it was that we were there. That, in fact, it was nice that anyone liked poetry given the way most of us are introduced to it. By which, he meant, in school. Imagine if the first time we listened to music, it was someone picking a suitable piece, they played it for a whole group, and then sat us down to ask us questions about it.

By the same token, it's a wonder that anyone likes math, eh?

I really liked a lot of it. This poem, Aristotle, you can hear him read at the Poetry Foundation. It's about how Aristotle introduced or recognized the beginning middle and end structure for literature.
"This is the middle...
This is the bridge, the painful modulation.
This is the thick of things.
So much is crowded into the middle—
the guitars of Spain, piles of ripe avocados,
Russian uniforms, noisy parties,
lakeside kisses, arguments heard through a wall—
too much to name, too much to think about."
 If there is an official poem of Three Act lessons, this is it.

Jamie Radcliffe was a young visiting prof at Penn when I was at grad school there, and an all round good guy. (Now a full prof at Nebraska-Lincoln.) In addition to telling the best ever thesis joke, he had this great line about math and poetry. Even if he had only learned enough math to write doggerel, he was glad to have learned enough math to read the classic works of poetry from the all time great mathematicians.

Sometimes I think that this is the greatest sin of school mathematics. Making people think that the worst of the doggerel is all of math, and then making the students memorize it.  Not only missing out on many of the potential future poets of mathematics, but denying most students the whole art of mathematics.

But what would be the equivalent of poetry readings in school for math? The closest I've seen, I think, is Fawn's My Math exploration of Math Munch. (See also Sam's adaptation.) In my classroom, the day they bring in their patterns they've made and share their thinking and noticing is pretty close.

And it was crucial to let them talk. Just looking, I missed a lot of their intent. Other students noticed things that even the creators hadn't. There were several comments about "what if..." that were good math thinking. I also contributed a few noticings... I think that let them know that there was some real math here.

Afterwards he did a short Q & A. One of the first questions was about his process. He said, (paraphrasing from here out) take for example "I Chop Some Parsley While Listening To 'Three Blind Mice'" I was in my kitchen, chopping parsley, listening to Art Blakey. I was thinking, who hears three blind mice and thinks it's a good jazz tune. It's hot cross buns. But then I thought, how did they become blind? Was it congenital? Think how distraught the mother would be. Maybe an accident - an explosion! Mice covering there eyes. I take the pen out of pocket and now I'm at the office. If they became blind separately, how did they find each other? I mean how hard is it for a blind mice to even find another mouse, let alone two more blind ones? And then, what, the farmer's wife?! Now they've lost their tails, too.

And I start wondering how they came to be blind.
If it was congenital, they could be brothers and sister,
and I think of the poor mother
brooding over her sightless young triplets.

Or was it a common accident, all three caught
in a searing explosion, a firework perhaps?
If not,
if each came to his or her blindness separately,

how did they ever manage to find one another?
Would it not be difficult for a blind mouse
to locate even one fellow mouse with vision
let alone two other blind ones?

And how, in their tiny darkness,
could they possibly have run after a farmer's wife
or anyone else's wife for that matter?
Not to mention why.

Just so she could cut off their tails
with a carving knife, is the cynic's answer,
but the thought of them without eyes
and now without tails to trail through the moist grass

or slip around the corner of a baseboard
has the cynic who always lounges within me
up off his couch and at the window
trying to hide the rising softness that he feels.

By now I am on to dicing an onion
which might account for the wet stinging
in my own eyes, though Freddie Hubbard's
mournful trumpet on "Blue Moon,"

which happens to be the next cut,
cannot be said to be making matters any better.
He finishes this discussion by saying, it's about curiousity. I get curious about it, and then I just have to work it out. (Here's the song; I love Blakey, and know this album well - didn't hurt when hearing the story.)

I so get that - happened to me just this week with Justin Lanier's Star Fractal pattern. I just had to work it out.

Someone asked how old he was when he started. About 10. He saw a sailboat on a drive up the Hudson River parkway that he needed to write about. He figures everyone has 50 to 300 bad poems in them; high school is good for getting through a lot of them. Someone asked if poetry was good for expressing feelings. He told her that nobody cares. You're writing to get the reader to feel things. If you're good at it, they might start caring about yours.

One of our friends with whom we went, Joanie, was a high school lit teacher among other things (see her IB thoughts). I asked her how she taught poetry. Students try, and you just read it and give them feedback. A lot of it's terrible, but you let them know if they lost their focus or what they're writing about. I do want to be a reader for my students.

So I'm still processing it, but wanted to get these thoughts down. 

Do you have any thoughts on math as a liberal art? How do you teach to create an appreciation for the poetry of math, or to create a space for future mathematicians?

To close, I'll include one more of his poems. And ask if maybe we should be commiserating with poets more often.
Introduction to Poetry

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem's room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.