The Big Kids

This post will make more sense if you have already read Joe Schwartz’s  (@JSchwarz10a) thoughtful blog post about two experiences he and I shared at TMC 17. I’ll wait here while you go read it.



Back? Good.

Alright, let me share a couple of reflections first. Joe is one of the many delightful folks whose acquaintance I would not have made if I had not taken the plunge into this online world of collaboration. He and I met in person in Minneapolis and had a really in depth conversation about parenting, especially with regard to tech use for children. His words have echoed in my ear this year and my wife and I took on the challenge of a smart phone for our 14 year old. My son does not know it but Joe is one of the reasons why I was able to sort out my protests and come to the decision to give him one. So, in addition to my life being improved by Joe’s friendship, my son’s life is improved by Joe’s wisdom.  Anyways… This summer I got to spend time with Joe again at meals (especially a LOVELY dinner at the oddly named Cowfish) and at a session run by David Butler (@DavidKButlerUofA) called 100 Factorial. As Joe wrote, he and I were in a group of four with Jasmine Walker (@jaz_math) and Mauren (Mo) Ferger (@Ferger314) We worked on a problem called skyscrapers (you can find a cool online link here ) and we were all full engaged. Now, I knew jasmine and Joe already and knew Joe was a primary teacher. This fact did not cross my mind during the time we were working on the problem, but it sounds like maybe it did for Joe based on his blog post. That evening about a dozen folks all descended on Cowfish for dinner and I was sitting near Joe and Jasmine. I won’t repeat the story of our conversation, Joe covered it well. What I do want to do is think out loud about my perception of the conversation and try to get into Joe’s head a little bit as well as getting into my own head. Early in the conversation I mentioned to Jasmine that I had the impression that she might be ‘mathier’ than I am. I tend to be a little self deprecating in this area, I have three degrees and they are all from College of Education. I have no formal math degree but I took a load of math classes in college and have taught a load of them in my 30 years of teaching. I know a few things and I am pretty quick at making connections, if I do say so myself. However, I also know that I am TOO quick to make certain conclusions and this caused some trouble in the Skyscraper game and I am also a bit too quick to throw in the towel if I don’t see at least some sort of pathway pretty quickly. I don’t need to know an answer right away but I do need to have some sense of where to find the answer to help me be persistent. As Jasmine and I were trying to ‘un’ one-up each other (Edmund Harriss (@Gelada) was sitting next to me and he joked that this was the opposite of a pissing contest) I was also wrestling with the question Joe had out on the table comparing the Exeter problem sets with the puzzle we played with that afternoon. Looking back, I fear that the banter with Jasmine about who was less ‘mathy’ may have been somewhat hurtful now that I see the feelings Joe laid out in his blog. If that is true, I am deeply sorry. What I DO remember distinctly about the conversation was that I described different initial reactions to the lovely problem sets and the creative puzzles that Prof Butler laid out. In the problem sets there is a reassuring (or distressing, I guess) sense that these are MATH problems. That there is some MATH technique or formula that will be needed to nudge me down the road to success. With the Skyscraper problem, it was clear to me that this was an exercise in LOGIC. MATH thinking strategies certainly are handy and helpful, but this problem did not yield to an algorithm (or if it does, I am not nearly clever enough to know it) but it did yield to persistence and communication. Joe talks about wanting to overcome some old residual fear or discomfort to go ‘play with the big kids’ on the Exeter problem sets. What I hope he recognizes is that he WAS playing on that stage, it was just in the cafeteria with Skyscrapers instead. I have had conversations around Exeter problem sets with students and with other teachers. They have been great conversations but they were certainly not more memorable than the feeling of diving in and and conquering the Skyscraper problem. Joe was an integral part of that problem-solving team and he caught a couple of my mistakes when I jumped to quick conclusions. We are all on a continuum of comfort and confidence in different problem solving scenarios and Joe’s thoughtful and honest blog post serves as an important reminder to me to try and be more aware of these feelings in others as a new school year begins.

Joe told us this summer that he has retired from his daily gig and is now doing a variety of consulting jobs. He talked about how some folks collect baseball stadiums over the years, visiting ballparks around the country. He talked about the idea of doing that with classroom visits now that he has a more open calendar. I would LOVE it if he carries through with this plan, it would be great to hear his perspective. I would welcome him to my school with open arms but I would also be slightly anxious and a bit nervous about it. Would I still seem like ‘one of the big kids’ if he saw me in action? This kind of anxiety, I think, is probably a good thing for me. It keeps me on my toes. I want to make sure that my students have a meaningful experience in my classroom and one of the ways I can do that better is to imagine that I was also crafting an experience for someone like Joe.

One thought on “The Big Kids”

  1. Jim, Thanks so much for your post. There were aspects of the conversation that took place that night at the restaurant that had completely slipped my mind, and I am grateful you were able to capture them. What I am trying to think through is something like: to what extent should the math adapt to me as opposed to me adapting to the math? If I did visit your classroom, I would expect that you’d go about your normal course of business whether I understood what was going on mathematically or not. That part is on me. But what I’m beginning to understand is that, for me, the engagement piece is really important, and here’s where the teacher comes in. Dan’s analogy of the headache and the aspirin is helpful. Did you give me a headache? Did you make me want to learn the math? Have you helped create an intellectual need? Maybe my definition of a “mathy” person is someone who looks at the Exeter problems and immediately wants to dive in and solve them because they look fun, or challenging, or stimulating just as they are. That’s not me. It’s hard for me to gin up motivation on my own for something I don’t care about. Doing the math for its own sake doesn’t really cut it.
    Thanks for pressing my thinking. I’m planning on exploring this in another post, and I hope we can continue the conversation!

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