Math Class for America

So the election happened.

Today, the students at my school felt scared, sad, angry, anxious, and confused, but gave such energetic and clear expression to so many sides of the matter at hand, and spoke bravely and listened to one another compassionately. They opened a space to share and acknowledge how they were feeling, and started looking for ways to channel these feelings into action.

What they reminded me was, you don’t decide events, and you don’t even decide how you feel as a result of those events, but you can choose how you respond to events and how to use your feelings. Right now, the students chose to speak and share, and when we had spent the morning on that, to return to math class and do some good work. At the end of the day, I’d ask students: how are you? And they go — okay. And give a knowing smile. I was so impressed.

My classroom is 100% where I want to be right now. When we finally got into it after the (important, crucial, timely) whole-class conversations, whole-school sit-ins, viewing of speeches and lots of hugging and passing around of tissues — when I finally got with my students, in a math class, working on math — I saw my work there in a whole new light.

What I want to teach my students is: how to reason together; how to listen; how to argue your point with supporting evidence; how to evaluate and adjudicate contradictory evidence, and how to change your mind publicly, without fear. That’s what math is about, really. Its content is all shapes, numbers, and patterns, but its method is democratic dialogue, the communal probing of understanding and implicitly, the establishment of meaning.

That’s what we need. Math class is a microcosm. If we can’t listen to someone with a different idea of how to plot a range of values graphically on a number line, or are not willing to admit the possibility that our solution is incomplete or incorrect — how do we propose to do such things around the economy, immigration, global warming?

Their work is all in groups this year, but I’ve always been a little hands off in terms of guiding them on how to do this — which is ridiculous, because who knows naturally how to work in a group? No one (cf. the 2016 election, The United States Congress, etc.). So I got into it with them, directing them in ways I had not before. This seemed important today, of all days.

I went from group to group as they tried to build a consensus around their solutions to the homework. Let me tell you, they were not having it. It’s so hard just to listen to one another and go at the pace that your neighbor is going. They bounce around unpredictably in their work. They skip questions that they don’t understand without much attempt to try. They see any kind of extra detail in note-taking, or writing out their reasoning as an impossible and unnecessary expense of energy. Same with suggesting their answers to other students and listening to the responses. But of course when they don’t do these things, all kinds of ridiculousness ensues. Several times I’ve had students present their ideas on a problem to the whole class, only to have members of their own group disagree with them. I’m like — how did you get through 30 minutes of group work without mentioning your differences on this problem, which was one of three you had the task of discussing??

I know why, of course. Listening closely is hard. Hearing critique and mustering a thoughtful response is even harder. It’s easier to let someone just tell you their answer if they speak it with enough authority, and even easier still to be satisfied with your own understanding and not probe any further.

Our responsibility as citizens is all of the hard things, though — arguing our case, listening to that of our opponent, and sincerely evaluating the two along side one another. How often does that happen, I wonder? More practice would be better. Starting with the young is good, too.

Cornel West wrote an editorial last week about the spiritual blackout in America, and I’ve returned to it frequently. Dr. West tells us about Plato’s critique of democracy — its potential for corruption and manipulation by elites and charismatic politicians, its weak spot for ignorance and mob rule — and offers us John Dewey’s response, that a democracy must foster in its citizenry critical intelligence, moral compassion, and a mature sense of history. That’s the purpose of democratic education, and democratic math education (or as I called it today, Math for America, or at other times People’s Math) can do all three.

The ability to make, evaluate, and revise arguments using evidence and in collaboration with others is precisely critical intelligence.

The act of listening and attending to one another’s ideas builds a spirit of moral compassion, because we learn that other minds work like ours, make brilliant leaps and careless errors like ours, and have the potential for growth like ours.

And in as much as a math class encourages students to participate in the creation of mathematics, rather than the rote absorption and recitations of formulas and vocabulary, it brings students into a truly universal, historical human dialogue that can be both humbling and empowering — this is a mature sense of history. I am receiving what was handed down to me, and I am handing it down myself.

Teaching helps. I’m glad when I emerged for my commute today into a sad, early morning cloud and a subway full of people not looking at one another, I knew I was going to a place where I could put my anger and sadness to good political use: teaching math.

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