Stories matter

Earlier this week, my daughter, H, came home from school with a little homework. For the record, H is happily not swamped with homework this year. She occasionally brings a short assignment home for return to school the next day, but nothing that has been at all onerus. She is also expected to learn spelling words, read independently 20 minutes a day, and memorize her addition and subtraction facts 1-20. This is not homework anyone checks up on, but notice that if we did it all every day it would total about 30-40 minutes. So we don’t do it every day, but we try to hit these things lots of days.

Anyway, H came home with an assignment on Monday. She was supposed to tell a family member the story of the “magic pot,” and then work together with one of us to make up a “magic pot problem.” So we asked her to tell us the story. I wish I had recorded it so that I could quote it in her own voice, but I’ll tell it as I remember it, sticking as close to her version as I can.

There is an old man who is poor. He is a farmer and digs things up. One day he digs up a pot. The pot isn’t good for anything to him but he thinks that he will bring it home for his wife so that she can use it for cooking. He puts his wallet in the pot as he carries it home. When he gets home, his wife sees that the pot is too large for cooking in and too small for bathing in. But she also sees that there are two of the wallet. Then they put gold coins in and those also double, so they get rich. One time the wife falls in and there are two of her, and then the old man falls in and there are two of them, and they decide the two duplicates should live together, so they make a second house the same as the first.

This is a nice story about doubling, and H has now done lots of “magic pot” problems, working on doubling, and I think they are moving from this to early work on functions. That’s terrific, but I object strongly to the use of this particular story to teach doubling. Mathematically, there is nothing wrong with it (although I hope the curriculum also finds ways to present non-magical examples of doubling). But mathematics is not all that matters in this story.

This story is about a man who does things out in the world, and we know some things about him. He’s old, he has an occupation outside of the home. The other character in the story is known only by her relationship with him. She’s his wife. She provides companionship to the old man, and appreciates the wonder of his discovery. It’s the kind of subtle sexist framing of an otherwise benign story that makes me nuts.

Maybe I could have let it go if it were not for the fact that yesterday I was at the library with my son R, and he found a book that he had heard at library story hour, and we checked it out so we could read it at home. The book is called The Skeleton Pirate. The Skeleton Pirate is male (of course), and his big thing is that he “will never be beaten!” But by the second page of the book he is actually defeated, chained, and thrown off of a pirate ship. As he is sinking, he can’t resist the temptation to engage in a little microaggression as he passes a Mermaid and says “Hello there, my lovely.” The Mermaid smiles, covers her mouth with her hand, and unlocks him from his chains, after which he says “thank you, my dear.” As I am reading this to my 7-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son, I already want to punch both the Skeleton and the author.The Skeleton Pirate

The Skeleton and the Mermaid get swallowed by a whale, and while the Skeleton yells at the whale challenging it to fight, the Mermaid cries and looks completely incapable of processing their predicament. On the next page the Mermaid “gently” suggests that talking to the whale might help (the whale who is, of course, male). The Mermaid comes up with a plan that overcomes the Skeleton’s objection that the Whale cannot hear them, suggesting that they could speak in his ear, which is near his brain. Right after making her suggestions, the Skeleton says, “Come on! I’ve got a plan!” Oh really, is it the plan where you talk to the Whale, by finding his ear which is right next to his brain? What an amazing plan you came up with all by yourself!

Indeed, they do talk to the Whale. Of course the Skeleton does 90% of the talking, convincing the Whale to let them out because we learn that all of the treasure he has swallowed actually makes him feel ill. On the last page of the book we see the Skeleton proposing to the Mermaid, who is gazing at him demurely but flirtatiously. The text at the end has the Skeleton speaking:

‘You know,’ he said, ‘think I’ve been beaten at last.’

‘Oh my,’ said the Mermaid with a laugh.

So we see that the Mermaid’s purpose has been to use her feminine wiles to tame the aggressive Skeleton, defeating him with such a thorough passivity that all she can say is “Oh my.” At this point, I had to stop the reading and tell my children how disappointed I was by the sexism in the story. I didn’t even use any expletives.

You might think these are small things, and not worth getting worked up about. But stories matter. No, the sexism in the story of the magic pot isn’t going to keep my daughter from being an amazing mathematician, but the sexism of most of the stories in the world, and their subtle insistence that men (like the old man and the Skeleton) do things, and women (like the wife and the Mermaid) take care of men, that’s quite enough to be sure that my daughter struggles with her power and confidence in mathematics, science, engineering, and more.

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Being stuck

It’s been a long time since I made a post, so today I a dipping my toe back in the water. This isn’t supposed to be a good post, just a post. My problem is that I’ve been stuck for a couple of months now.

There are lots of reasons that I have been stuck. I was burned out. I exhausted myself. I didn’t take good care of myself. I don’t like it when things slow down. I don’t like tending to things, preferring to start journeys that to continue them. I am having health issues. I have young kids who are sometimes exhausting. I’m too old. I’m in the wrong line of work; I should be doing something else. I’m too short. I should stop drinking coffee, or maybe I should drink more of it. I haven’t read enough to have an informed opinion. I don’t know the literature well enough. It’s too late now. My email inbox is too full. I spend too much time online. My house is too messy. The battery life on my laptop is too short. I don’t have a smartphone. My kids aren’t doing music lessons. My voice sounds stupid. I’m obnoxious. I’m middle aged, and all the good things are done by young people with energy or older people with wisdom.

My daughter is in second grade, and the second grade teachers want students to get down their addition and subtraction facts this year, so she’s practicing her addition and subtraction with numbers from 0 to 20. I don’t object to that, but I do start to get worried. School has been fun for her for some time now. But she’s getting older. Will these boring tasks start to seem boring to her, will she see some of what makes math interesting? Will she get frustrated if her recollection of facts isn’t fast enough? The math that she interacts with in school seems so much less rich and inspiring than the reading and writing.

So we get down to the problem that I have with math. On the one hand, school math appears to be uninspiring and unimportant.  But the inspiring and exciting math often seems smarmy to me. But I do love some of the things designed to inspire us with mathematics. I love Vi Hart’s stuff, for instance, which is fun, silly, and inspiring. I was talking with a mathematician the other day who left academia and started an after-school program. He doesn’t like Vi Hart, and as far as I could tell it was because she talks down about school math and is too interested in building an audience. Perhaps it is better to be more serious, to try to change the system of mathematics education “from within,” to show people how and why they should love learning for it’s own sake.

I read an essay today by Thomas Frank, in which he talks about the story of creativity in our culture, and how a person can read books that expound on creativity and watch Ted talks about how to be creative, but that all of those books and talks feel recycled and unoriginal. He reaches the conclusion that the creativity literature is for the “professional-managerial audience itself, whose members … think they’re in the presence of something profound when they watch some billionaire give a TED talk. And what this complacent literature purrs into their ears is that creativity is their property, their competitive advantage, their class virtue. Creativity is what they bring to the national economic effort, these books reassure them — and it’s also the benevolent doctrine under which they rightly rule the world.”

I think those of us in education can learn something from this. I think that the push for students to learn more math and better math, and the many books bemoaning the poor state of mathematics literacy and education is in effect like the creativity literature. It exists so that those of us in in math and other STEM fields can see our own virtues, see the value of what we bring to the world, see our own “benevolent doctrine” under which we are, if not ruling, at least controlling access to educational capital.

As you read above, I have a lot of excuses for being stuck, but one important component of my stuck-ness is my lack of faith in academia, and particularly in STEM education. I lack the sense that STEM is urgently needed, that STEM is the foundation upon which economic and humanitarian progress rests. I think the narratives that educators, mathematicians, and scientists promote about STEM education are not for the world, they are for us, for scientists, mathematicians, and STEM educators. I would love to find a new story about STEM, and about mathematics. One which has room for real people in it, one in which math, science, and technology are not going to save us all, they are just part of the big wide world. Maybe if I get back to writing, I can start to find that new story.