For three weeks at the Park City Math Institute (PCMI), we started each day with two hours of problem solving. Around 60 math teachers, in a conference room, doing math. You should have heard us making observations, asking each other for help, being awed, being puzzled, all expressing each in our own ways. Occasionally we sniffed a trail and went frantically to work, and other times, at the urging of our instructors, we “stopped to smell the roses.” The problems were mixed but at least loosely (and often bizarrely strongly) connected. Of these connections I look forward to writing more as I revisit my notes, but for now just my impression.
For now, I want to say that it was captivating. I always wanted more time to sit, explore, and grapple with problems. And I know I am a math teacher and all, and that it’s my job to love this stuff, and that you can’t judge a field of study by looking at how a self-selecting group geeks out on it. My zeal, however, is reaching the point where I start yelling about how it’s f—ing OBJECTIVE: there’s enough beautiful, captivating stuff in mathematics that my students should never be bored.
As I begin my August edit of my Algebra 2 and Trigonometry curriculum, I note the lessons that worked and those that fell flat. I saw that it’s possible to get students excited about mathematics: I saw them gasp and applaud in satisfaction, for example, as they explored trigonometry in the Spring. It just seems to me that a school year consisting of 180 or so classes is never going to be enough for kids to have a chance to get bored. There are so many connected threads to explore, so many surprises, big and small, so many self-motivating weirdnesses to figure out that 180 classes (what’s that, about 135 hours?) worth of math ought to fly by. If it doesn’t, I want to hold myself accountable to that.
I’m psyched to apply all that I’ve learned in the past few months in the coming year, and one of my guiding principles will be to try to keep motivation high by finding the 180 days worth of stuff* that kids just can’t help but join me in the excitement. There is so much to teach* – always too much in a curriculum to fit into a year – so why not take the greatest parts, and make sure that every day counts?
* And as per some conversations I had at PCMI, this doesn’t mean I have to plan it all from scratch! There’s so much good stuff out there. People are doing great work, and beautiful problems have been written. My job is to research and cull, to fill in the blanks, and to adapt to my kids – not to reinvent wheels. Sounds like another guiding idea for the year.