Liberation Math Week 5: Becoming Creators

English: Counting 1-10 work book page for numb...

Counting 1-10 workbook page (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This week in Liberation Math, participants in the class made a start at creating a book. The form is still uncertain (online? printed? both?), but we are going to use the book to put forth our best thinking about how to change mathematics education and how to change ourselves. The current outline of the book can be found in this google doc and includes the chapters:

  • Preface/Intro Section
  • Chapter 1: We are all makers
  • Chapter 2: Mindset
  • Chapter 3: How technology influences our use of math
  • Chapter 4: Re-imagining the way in which problems are communicated/solved

I’m excited and invigorated by all of the new ideas floating around, and can’t wait to see what everyone comes up with. I hope that we’ll be engaging with people outside the class that can help with the topics we’ll be writing about. For that, we people to engage with us, too read our writing, to give comments and suggestions, and to add ideas. We’d love to have you join us!

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Anger and Shame in my Teaching, a sort of anti-liberation-math

English: A metaphorical visualization of the w...

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Last week I wrote a post on another blog about being disappointed in students, which is something I struggle with and want to eradicate. Yesterday I realized that I had misnamed the problem. It’s not disappointment I struggle with, it’s anger. Anger isn’t a professional emotion as a teacher, and it makes me feel distant and disconnected with my students. My mission in life is connecting with students, so why would I repeatedly entertain an emotion that hurts my chances at living my dreams? And I do mean that I entertain the emotion of anger. I tolerate it, nurture it, and feed it. And I don’t just do it as a teacher. I do it with my kids, getting angry when I could be connecting. I do it with my spouse and my family, getting angry when they need me.

I have been studying shame for some time now, particularly shame around mathematics, which typically means shame around math in a school setting. Shame and anger frequently occur together, often in a cycle, so I should have suspected that my problem was really anger. Here is how it works, and how it connects to shame for me.

I ask students to do certain work and I have certain expectations of them and the work they do. I can do this because of the power that I have in the classroom. This is the power that I have over their grades, and the power that I have because they have been raised in a school culture of compulsion and obedience. When they do not do the work, or they do not meet my expectations, I feel that as a threat to my social self. I feel disrespected and I feel a version of shame because, in my eyes, the has student decided that my expectation was not important to them, and thus that I was not worthwhile. The work I ask for and expectations that I have are the clearest evidence of my relationship with the students, so when that is threatened, my relationship is threatened.

I respond to that feeling of shame by getting angry. Shame is an extremely uncomfortable emotion, so people will usually seek to cover it with another emotion, and anger is a popular choice. When I am angry, I can focus on the student as the problem, rather than the hurt, disconnection, or shame that I feel as the leader of the class. Furthermore, I can blame my feelings entirely on the students. The compulsory nature of education means that they should be doing what I say, and if they don’t, it is the students that are in the wrong, not me, the helpful teacher. And even worse than that, once I am angry, I don’t just want to let the problem slide, I want the students to know that I am right and they are wrong, to punish them and to have them accept that punishment as their rightful due.

Honestly, its a gross thing to admit to, and is the opposite of everything I want to be. I suspect that we all have this kind of shadow side, working against our dreams in the background even while we strive toward them in the foreground. I’m a good and caring teacher with a mission to connect with students — why would I keep this anger and meanness around? It’s my defense against being too vulnerable. I don’t want to look at what it means when students don’t do assignments, stop participating in class, or give up. Yes, sometimes it means that the students have things going on that don’t have anything to do with me. However, it can also mean that I am failing to build my relationships with the students and failing to find genuine ways to help them build power with and through math. It can mean that I don’t have real relationships with the students at all, only a dance with the students in which they carefully display certain signals in order to get the maximum grade with the minimum of effort. I’m responsible for that dance at least as much as they are, if not a little more. Why should they not be doing this when I have to admit to often falling back on my default job as a teacher, which is to compel students to do a certain series of tasks, to assess them on those tasks, and to assign them a letter grade that they take with them as a credential or a black mark. It can mean that I’m actually hurting them through my participation in a particularly oppressive subject within an oppressive educational system.

I sure want all of your thoughts on this one, whether you are a student, a teacher, or anyone who gets in the way of their own dreams and connections!

Liberation Math Week 4: Making, Doing, Activism

The theme of this week is making, doing, and activism. We touched on this a lot on Monday’s class, and I wanted to bring you a variety of resources. Think about how the people involved in the sites and posts below are being makers, doers, and activists:

We’d love you to join in the discussion, so please comment below on anything that comes up for you in this list, check out the list of tasks for this week, and check out John’s wrap-up of the class from last week. You can also see blog posts from the class on the right sidebar and interact with us on Twitter — you can follow all of us at once on at

Makers, Doers, and Liberation Math

There’s a growing interest out in the world in making cool things, particularly with technology. Commonly called the “maker movement,” this trend has its roots in tinkering with technology and computing in ways that move the creation of things out of the hands of manufacturers and into the hands of real people. There is a magazine, MAKE, devoted to this movement, and Maker Faire‘s all over the place where people come together in community to learn, share, and show off stuff that is made by real people. The president of the United States even mentioned 3D printing in his state of the union address in February — this used to be a technology that existed only in the manufacturing sector, but MakerBot, Shapeways and others have brought the technology to makers so that we can all play. And making isn’t just people who already know what they are doing — thirteen-year-old Lauren Rojas recently gained YouTube fame for her video of a rocket she built and launched.

I’ve been starting to ask myself who gets to be a maker. Yes, I know, its a grassroots movement, so of course the answer is “anyone.” But it isn’t really anyone. At the right is what the Maker Faire people put out MakerFaireDemographics in terms of demographics to get sponsors, so you can see that, as you might have guessed, this movement is fairly male and pretty well-funded. MAKE magazine is even more extreme, with subscribers being 90% male. So we should be talking about access, equity, and justice issues. Some people are talking (for instance here and here), but we certainly need more.

But there are more than just access issues involved in who becomes a maker, or, more broadly, a doer. I started thinking through a mind map of the issues last night in my weekly Liberation Math class, and it morphed into the diagram below.

Diagram of Resources, Community, and Self

Now, you might be wondering what place this all has in my math class. Certainly the maker movement is exerting and influence on STEM (“science, technology, engineering, and math”) education, so that’s a part of it. But more than that, liberation math is all about becoming a maker and a doer. I’m trying to fight against the idea that students are empty and powerless vessels for the knowledge and excitement that I already have. I want people to rise up and take charge of their own mathematics, to become powerful doers and makers of mathematics. Part of this power is the power to decide. People might decide to do very little math, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  So long as people are in community and have resources, they can step back from math without losing their ability to make and do. When people need the math, it is always there, and they can access it again through accessing their networks, taking advantage of learning and skill-building opportunities. It is only when students are stuck in the middle of oppressive curriculum that you fall off the edge of the world, doomed to be lost forever if you step away from math. People who are standing in a place of power, safety, and courage can always find a route to access and use the mathematics that they need.

Disappointment and Hiding in the Classroom

I’ve been noticing lately my disappointment in students. I don’t want to feel disappointed in students. Honestly, I don’t want to feel disappointed in anyone. Who does? But you might argue that we have certain expectations for how the people around us will act, and that people don’t always meet those expectations. When they don’t, I am justified in feeling disappointed, at least provided that my expectations were reasonable. The trouble is that  disappointment is counterproductive, and for me it is part of an overall tendency I have to disconnect with people.

Let me look at this a little closer. I have certain expectations for my students. I set those out for the students by giving them specific assignments (“turn this worksheet in on Monday” or “write a blog post about your problem-solving process”), and I lay them out on the course syllabus by telling students to come to class, check their email regularly, participate, and so forth. There are also a collection of expectations that go unspoken by me. I expect that students will be thinking about what they need to do to prepare for upcoming exams, even if I don’t give them explicit assignments. I expect that students will ask for help and support when they don’t understand something after class. I expect that students will monitor what they do and don’t understand. I expect that students will give me their best work, and won’t piece together something at the last minute. I often say things which imply these expectations, but I’m not always explicit about them. Also notice that not all of these expectations are realistic.

If a student doesn’t meet these expectations, I get cranky. In between classes, if I am expecting work and participation from students that I don’t see, I start to worry, and to run my “disappointment tape.” Typically it involves me getting frustrated and making up a lot of things that I imagine to be happening with the students. I imagine them as uninterested in the course, not dedicated, not hard-working, wanting to get away with not doing work, not caring about thinking deeply, not caring about interacting with me or other students. Yes, there’s some really ugly stuff hiding in there. The thing is that I don’t know that any of that is really happening. Mostly, I think what is happening with me is that I want this connection with students, and most of what I have to connect with is their work. When the work isn’t there, I feel rejected. I imagine the students pulling away from me, and I rush to pull away from them first, by getting “disappointed” in them. Most of the time, I can get back my connection with the students simply by being around them — it is the time in between classes that provides a space for these feelings to grow.

Students don’t always do what we teachers what them to do. In fact, people in general don’t always do what other people what them to do. So we get anxious about our relationships and our standing with other people. In school, this means teachers get frustrated with and disappointed in students. What do students do? Students learn to hide from the disappointment of teachers. They hide and they lie so they can save themselves from the consequences of expectations unmet. Students hide so that they’re grades aren’t in jeopardy and they hide so that they can maintain positive relationships with the powerful people that are important to them. Students get into a habit of hiding, so that it seems as natural as breathing. I remember it well from the last time I was a student — doing work I wasn’t proud of and hoping it would slip by without notice, making up excuses for doing work late or stretching excuses that were technically true but not really accurate, trying to look good in order to get away with things. As a teacher, I know that students are doing these things, but I ignore it, acting as if students are going to meet all of my expectations, and then getting disappointed when they don’t. Because I am required to assign grades to students, I maintain and perpetuate the fiction that grades mean something objective, when the reality is that they’re just a somewhat arbitrary record of how well a student met my somewhat arbitrary standards about a somewhat arbitrary collection of activities and topics.

What if I stopped doing this? It’s hard to imagine. Could I stop having expectations of students? What would happen to me and to the students if I did? What if I kept having my expectations, but was more honest about the fact that I know students won’t always meet them? What’s so bad about the students not meeting them anyways? Could I keep the expectations, but let go of the disappointment, simply connecting with students about what happened and deciding what to do next? Could I let my students be honest with me about the unrealistic nature of my expectations and with what really happens for them in a class? Could I let students formulate their own expectations, help them to make those expectations realistic, and then help them to live up to those expectations? Could I create a classroom environment in which I helped my students evaluate themselves? Wouldn’t this cause the very foundation of objective and rational subjects like math and science crumble because students would start writing expressive poetry about how math makes them feel and giving themselves an A++ on every assignment?


Liberation Math: Week 3

This week in Liberation Math:

  • Math Problem for This Week: Shower vs. Bath
    • Watch this video of the shower vs. bath situation. Which is cheaper, the shower or the bath?
    • What information do you need to solve this problem? If you want to play along, ask questions and figure out what you need to know by tweeting your questions and thoughts using the hashtag #libmath. It’s also up to course participants to answer the questions, so figure out a way together to get those answers. Remember that we’ve all been trained up that math problems are neat, that there is a right way to do them, and that all the information comes from the teacher. We are thumbing our noses at that, which can make you feel shaky and insecure. Instead of doubting yourself, work with others can increase your safety and confidence.
    • Once you’ve gathered all the information you need, see if you can answer the question. We’ll feature an answer here from the class blog posts next week!
  • Readings for this week. We’d love to hear your thoughts!
  • We are also thinking about how to change the world outside of our class. You should feel free to check out the lists of tasks for class participants this week as well!

Liberation Math: Call to Action

Josef Fixing a Bike on the Ride

Josef Fixing a Bike on the Ride (Photo credit: mikeywally)

There are problems with math education, and there is no lack of suggestions for how to change things for the better. Some of those suggestions have great potential, but the solutions come from the people who have made their careers in mathematics and math education — from people who love math. We need a different group of people working on the solutions to mathematics education. We need people who struggle with math, people who hate math, people who have been so turned off they avoid math, people who have been told that they aren’t capable of learning mathematics. In other words, we need a space for the outsiders, the large group of people who have have either been shut out of conversations about math education, or who have left those conversations out of frustration. Its this disenfranchised group that best knows what is wrong, and who I believe can come up with solutions that speak to people like themselves, rather than speaking to people who are already successful in the current system of mathematics education.

Monday, in the Liberation Math class, we brainstormed some ideas for how to change the world. I invite you to read our ideas and add your own ideas right at in this document. Don’t be shy! If has never worked for you, I challenge you to say what didn’t work and to dream of another world. This week, class members will be picking some ideas and fleshing them out, figuring out how we can actually impact mathematics education.

Please, add your ideas either in the google doc, in the comments below, or via a tweet with the hashtag #LibMath (this is a shortening of the hashtag #liberationmath, which is restricting our character count too much!). I’ll be posting readings and a summary for the week next.