Flexible Thought, I

Today I proctored a Regents exam.  There were 26 students in the room, none of whom were my students this year, but all of whom will be my students next year.  It seemed to me, and I think, to them, like some sort of audition for next year.  “I know you, and you know me,” we seemed to say to each other, “so what’s next year going to be like?”

I could share several anecdotes as examples, but I’ll focus on one.  This one is regarding a student who I’ve never taught previously.  (About half of them were in my freshman algebra course, which ended a year ago.)  This student, who we’ll call Henry, seemed to act like he was on stage throughout the exam. Adolescent witticisms flowed from his mouth as I handed out test materials; his head swiveled as he asked semi-pertinent questions moments after they had been answered. When the test began and the room was nearly quiet, Henry was the only student to not open his test booklet.  His face sat in his hands, and he spied me out of a barely opened eye.  After acknowledging that we indeed had our eyes on each other, I asked him if he knew that he could begin.

“Yes,” came the speedy reply, “I’m praying.”  Laughter from the class.

The test happened, and with it Henry’s theatrical displays of scholarship: ruffled papers, tapping pencil and insistent eraser, scrutinized reference sheets.  As I scanned the room, his eyes, I realized, begging for attention.

And that’s just the thing.  The attention.  Earlier in my career, I could have unloaded on this kid for being off task, or obnoxious, or for failing at humor.  Now, I understand what I must offer to him.  A nod, an encouragement, and the opportunity to get the attention he craves.  Ideally, I’ll help him be sharp enough to stay as funny as he hopes to be.

I read recently an epigram on a buddy’s g-chat message, a William James quote that “a sense of humor is just common sense, dancing.”  In order for Henry to be more funny and less annoying, he’ll have to be able to think flexibly.  To dance around common sense and make it tickle.  This type of flexible thought is also central to how I’d like to teach mathematics.

How can I ensure that kids are flexible thinkers – nimble of mind and brave to leap from the box?  How can I be certain to give Richard the opportunity to be funny, while explicitly teaching modes of flexible thought?  It seems possible, even though I need to make more sense of these ideas.  I’ll be teaching Henry five days each week, starting in September.  We’ll see how it goes.

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