Friday, July 27, 2012

Who will be the math education savior?

Last night, my wife and I celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary with a house concert. Josh Davis, one of our favorite Michigan singer/songwriters, performed. We had supported his trip to Palestine as part of a project by On the Ground Global, and the house concert was his way of saying thanks. (Below is a video from his trip.)

As a Jewish-American, Josh brought a unique perspective to the trip. He told many stories about the ten days he spent there and sang several songs he wrote based on the experience. In one of the stories, he shared an interchange on spirituality that he had with one of the Palestinians who hosted him. The man gave him a set of Muslim prayer beads with the explanation that everyone needs guidance through the darkness.

This got me thinking about recent discussions related to math education. It might be hyperbole to say that these are dark times to be a teacher but there certainly seems to be a cloud over the profession. Understandably, some might reach out for a savior to guide them. We need to be careful.

I am a firm believer in the power of inspiration - hearing someone else's story or idea and considering ways to apply it to our own situation. My blog is filled with examples of this. But for me, it is even more important that our efforts be authentic. Here is a story from Alan Cohen's The Dragon Doesn't Live Here Anymore that seems appropriate:
There is a story from the Jewish Hassidic tradition that I would like to share with you. Rabbi Zusya, a pious and revered sage, was lying on his deathbed, weeping. His students stood by him perplexed. 
“Rabbi, why do you weep?” one of them ventured to ask, “Surely if anyone is assured a place in the kingdom of heaven, it is you!” 
The sage turned his head toward his beloved students and began to speak softly: “If, my children, when I stand before the heavenly court, I am asked ‘Zusya, why were you not a Moses?’ I shall have no hesitation in affirming, ‘I was not born a Moses.’” 
“If they ask me, 'Why, then, were you not an Elijah?' I shall speak with confidence, ‘Neither am I Elijah.’” 
“I weep, friends, because there is only one question that I fear to be asked; ‘Why were you not a Zusya?’”

While some people may ask me, "Where are your 3,000 videos?", I am not Sal Khan and that medium does not match my skills. And when others ask if I have Meyer-ized my lessons, I can tell them no because it does not match my style. For years I taught as others taught and I do not want to go back to those times. I am comfortable and confident in my teaching but that is not to say complacent. Thanks to all of you, I continue to find ideas that inspire me.

So who will be the math education savior? You will. And you. And you. In fact, there was a large group of them meeting recently at Twitter Math Camp. Check them out here, and be prepare to be inspired.

Updated 6/17/13: Below is an interview and performance by Josh Davis where he describes his encounter with the Palestinian who gave him the prayer beads.


  1. Your second to the last paragraph really rings true with me. I don't think I got to that point in my teaching until last year. I am still trying to improve and incorporate new things into my teaching, but I have found, as you, that it is imperative to teach as best fits who you are rather than to try to be someone you are not.

    Thanks for the link to our reflections from TMC12 and for supporting us as teachers who do the best we can as we are.

  2. Trolling around for inspiration as I begin a new math teaching post after 16 years at my present school, and 27 years in,thank you for sharing these few words of wisdom. I love pen and paper, writing out mathematics is as satisfying for me as my love of cooking and my embroidery. I do most of my prose work long hand, and still write real letters. (that my 14 year old can't read because she was never taught cursive). I am inspired by the techie wizards that I will never become. Maybe there are still some old fashion learners or learners who engage through my warmth and enthusiasm. I am a reflective teacher and am still learning best practices, (I do not recycle year after year after year) and you are right, they have to work for the facilitator. Currently I love one-note and the tablet pc that allows me to share notes and examples on my webpage, and
    i am loving the hands-on and creativity of IN notebooks. I don't seem to be able to Moodle my way through the curriculum, and I have had "learn Powerpoint" on my alternative evaluation form for the last 10 years. Sigh.

    Where can I learn about all that I am missing in the geekdom on Twitter and twitter camp. I think I can add useful tips and be helpful if anyone needs lesson ideas.

    Amy in Sebastopol, CA

  3. This is so important to remember. There **IS** no savior, no silver bullet, no one-size-fits-all prescription that addresses every problem, every student, every teacher, every classroom. The most important thing for us all to remember is that the most effective teacher each one of us can be is the most authentic teacher-self we can bring to our own teaching.

    Authenticity is a powerful too. Dan's lesson ideas are based on his own deeply authentic relationship with his own mathematical understanding. When they resonate with my own understanding and my teaching, I use them. But trying to be somebody I'm not just makes me seem like a phony.

    At a time of yet more hysterical rhetoric about how to "save" math education from itself, I appreciate this valuable teaching reminder.

    - Elizabeth