My mission in life

My mission in life is to help adults, students, and teachers to develop their mathematical voices and power. In my research, I am currently focusing on developing a theory of the way shame disrupts mathematics learning and impacts mathematical identity, and on methods of developing powerful responses to shame triggers. In the classroom, I am focused on examining the role of relationships and narratives in my teaching and student learning.

It has been about a year and a half since issues in my own classes started me thinking about the role of shame in mathematics difficulties. Because shame is a relational emotion, considering the role of shame in mathematics places mathematical difficulties in a larger context which includes not only the learner, but also parents, teachers, administrators, and the entire society surrounding the learner. My current work includes finishing some qualitative analysis of mathematical memories of adults, examining common story narratives including evidence of the experiences of shame. This academic year I am also working on two relevant research projects, the first a collaborative project that takes a grounded-theory approach to the effect of subject-based autobiography assignments on classroom environment and student development, and the second an analysis of a method of mid-term course evaluation that I have developed over the past several semesters, particularly looking at how the evaluation impacts relationships in the classroom, students’ perceptions of power in the classroom, and my perceptions of the class as the instructor.

I am in the process of developing a class for Spring 2013 designed to help adult students who have been unsuccessful at school mathematics to understand and make meaning their mathematical experiences and identities, while at the same time providing them with mathematical experiences in which they can stay connected and powerful. The semester-long course I am developing combines critical pedagogy (Friere, 2000; Frankenstein, 1987) and a method of feminist action research called memory-work (Crawford et. al., 1992; Onyx & Small, 2001). I combine these powerful methods for collective self-examination with lessons from relational-cultural theory (Hartling et. al, 2000), story-editing approaches (Wilson, 2007; Wilson, 2011) which allow people to authentically develop growth mindsets (Dweck, 2007), and with mathematical problem solving so that people can unpack their mathematical identities and place them in a cultural context while developing mathematical skills and having real-time access to emotions surrounding mathematics.

I am very interested in connecting with others around this research and classroom work. I’d love to have conversations about this connects to the work of others, to find collaborators, and to present my work as widely as I can! Next year I will have a sabbatical in which I plan to write substantial portions of a book tentatively titled Liberation Mathematics: Narrative and Number, and I believe that engaging with lots of other people inside and outside of mathematics will really help me to craft this work carefully and make it as useful as possible. I am also looking for funding that would allow me to take a full year of sabbatical for the work, so if you have any ideas (even if they are crazy ones), let me know.

Crawford, J., Kippax, S., Onyx, J., Gault, U., & Benton, P. (1992). Emotion and gender: Constructing meaning from memory. Sage Publications, Inc.

Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Random House Digital, Inc.

Frankenstein, M. (1987). Critical Mathematics Education: An Application of Paulo Freire’s Epistemology. In I. Shor (Ed.), Freire for the classroom: a sourcebook for liberatory teaching (pp. 180–210). Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook.

Onyx, J., & Small, J. (2001). Memory-Work: The Method. Qualitative Inquiry, 7(6), 773 –786. doi:10.1177/107780040100700608

Wilson, S. (2007). My struggle with maths may not have been a lonely one: Bibliotherapy in a teacher education number theory unit. Mathematics: Essential research, essential practice, 815–823.

Wilson, T. D. (2011). Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change. Hachette Digital, Inc.

Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. (M. B. Ramos, Trans.) (30th Anniversary ed.). Continuum International Publishing Group.


Sabbatical Proposal

So, I’m preparing to apply for a sabbatical this year (and for promotion as well, but that’s another story). I’ve prepared a draft proposal for what I plan to do, but it still needs some help. In particular, I think I am being a bit chicken in my presentation and that I need to lead with what I want to do, not bury that after lots of discussion. I also need to make the project sound more exciting and vital — I think I tend to sound more excited in the preamble than I do when describing the actual sabbatical.

If you are interested, click below to see the proposal so far. Comments are welcome, criticism is welcome, encouragement is welcome, ideas are welcome, collaborators are welcome. You are welcome to talk to me more about it, or to suggest someone else I should talk to or something else I should do, and you are more than welcome to suggest funding sources!

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Mid-term Evaluation

A lot has happened this summer while I have been completely absent from this blog. I’ll give some updates about everything as I ease back into the semester, and I’m starting today with a project I’ll be working on this semester, which grows out of a mid-term evaluation process that I have developed. My intention is do a small SoTL (scholarship of teaching and learning) project this fall on my midterm evaluation process.

Right now, I’m working on the literature review. Right away, I hit something both obvious and interesting. I started reading a paper about course evaluations and the opening words were about the purpose of course evaluations. The claim was that the purpose of course evaluations was, essentially, the improvement of teaching. They provide feedback to instructors that the instructors can use to improve their teaching, and they provide information to supervisors that can be used to insure that the right teachers are assigned to the right courses. Of course, that got me thinking about my purpose in doing midterm course evaluations. I think that improvement in teaching is certainly part of it, but I wouldn’t call it my primary goal. Here’s what I’ve come up with for my goals in doing midterm evaluations:

  • To develop insight into how students are perceiving and relating to the course and me as the instructor
  • To provide me with time to change aspects of the course that need improvement before final evaluation at the end of the semester — to improve the course and my teaching in “real time”
  • To give students a mechanism for taking charge of their education, and to have them practice using that power through impacting the course
  • To enhance the level of safety and improve relationships in the course

I also got a useful new perspective. Why would we do this improvement in teaching? Presumably to improve student learning and outcomes, but student evaluation instruments don’t tend to focus on learning or on student outcomes! This semester, in the class I am going to be doing this evaluation project in, I am also going to have the students do two reports on their achievement of the course objectives. Essentially, these are a self-evaluations, and I would love to find a way to connect these self-evaluations with the midterm evaluation of instruction.

Don’t you just love the end of the semester?

The end of the semester is that time in which we all have to face the semester as it is, and it typically falls short of the semester as we hoped it would be. From where I sit as a teacher, I worry that my students didn’t learn enough, that I didn’t push them hard enough, and that I didn’t connect with them enough. Now we have only two weeks left, and I can’t hold onto some vast sweeping vision of how this semester will be. The semester is nearly over, and it is what it is.

This isn’t my favorite time. I prefer possibilities to certainties, and I have a tendency to look at myself and everyone around me and decide that none of us measure up. I also tend to slide into a pit of hopelessness. What difference does it make what I do now? The party is nearly over. So this semester, I’m trying to remind myself that it makes a great deal of difference — at least as much difference as at the start of the semester. I can still help students move as far as they can in two weeks. I can still connect with students in a way that enables us both the learn something.

And in some ways the end of the semester is great. I’m more relaxed with the students and I know them much better. I’m not so eager to control everything, and I’m more likely to simply accept things as they are. So my task in these last couple of weeks is to remember that my vision is about connection and helping students to move forward, and to not chicken out on that vision just because I’m not perfect. I can take advantage of the good parts of energy that comes at the end of the semester, and not use it to beat myself up and act like a brat about my work.

Sometimes Students Don’t Like Me

As a teacher of mathematics, I often find myself walking into classes where the emotional temperature of the room is pretty chilly. I teach classes that no one wants to take, and I ask students to do things that they don’t want to do. All teachers face this to some extent, and I think that math teachers in middle schools, high schools, and colleges are hit particularly hard. Personally, I enjoy teaching students who “hate math,” but even so, it is emotionally taxing to deal with the negativity of students. The emotional labor involved in teaching students who hate your subject is generally only discussed in the context of teachers complaining about students, and I would love to open the conversation and have more discussions about what it feels like to teach people who hate your subject, and how teachers handle those emotions.
The hardest thing for me is when a student is perhaps fine with the subject of math as a whole, but dislikes the way that I teach. Of course that’s hard for me. We all want to be liked. Those of us who teach live for the students who say, “This was my best math class ever!” But we also get the students who think we are lousy teachers. This really really sucks. When a student tells me either in person or on an evaluation form that they don’t like my teaching style, it feels like an attack. I typically feel terrible, and a part of my mental and emotional energy is consumed by emotions like anger, sadness, fear, and shame, sometimes for days. I desperately want to defend myself and to bolster my self-image as a good teacher.
But defending myself isn’t my job; teaching students is my job. So I have to find a way to see the “attack” in a different light. I have a few methods of doing this. The first is simply allowing time to pass. I typically look briefly at end-of-semester evaluation forms and then put them away after I see a couple of negative comments. When I start to feel defensive, I take a step back, and typically when I come back to the forms later I feel less defensive. But I generally need more than just time. I also think about the power dynamics in the classroom.
There is an enormous power differential between teachers and students; we control the content and pace of our classes, and we have control of the students’ grades. Students are in a powerless position, and complaining either in person or on evaluation forms are sometimes the only place where they can exercise any power at all. If I shut down those complaints because of my need to defend myself, I’ve robbed students of what little power they have. When a student communicates to me that something about my teaching doesn’t work for them, I remind myself of the importance of that feedback both to my teaching and to my relationship with that student. My knee jerk reaction is to tell myself that the student is wrong — they are wrong to not like my teaching style because my teaching style is good for them. This is a version of “they don’t know what’s good for them” and it is a popular topic of discussion for math teachers like myself. I try to look very critically at this assumption because its patronizing and it may be wrong. In other words, I try to assume the student is right, that my teaching style isn’t working for them, and that I can do something about that if I can get the student to talk to me about what is going on. Obviously this doesn’t work if I’m only hearing about the problem on an end-of-semester evaluation form, and I typically find it harder to make use of that feedback from those evaluation forms, unless the feedback is very specific.
It is terribly difficult to stand in the place in which I am wrong and the student is right and to imagine what that might mean. But every time I try, I learn something from my students. I had an experience this semester with a student that I thought had a “bad attitude” and then I found out that she didn’t like the way I was teaching the course. I really had to wrestle with my own attitude, but when I met with the student I really listened and as a result had a great connection with the student. I don’t see her as having a “bad attitude” anymore because I see who she really is. I understand more about why she didn’t like the way I was teaching, and we’ve found a way to connect. So the work is really worth it. I’d love to hear from other people about how you handle the intense work of making use of student feedback.

When students take over the class

Yesterday I had a very difficult, but ultimately wonderful, teaching experience. Currently, in Math, Art, and Design, we have been learning about fractals. Yesterday, I planned to hit them with some big guns — Julia and Mandelbrot sets. To understand how these sets are created, it is necessary to understand how to “square” points on the plane, and for that, you need to think of each point on the plane as a complex number. So I showed the students a little intro video on complex numbers, gave them the formula for squaring, and we were off and running, doing some squaring practice as a prelude to Julia sets.

Except we weren’t really off and running. My students stopped the class because they didn’t understand what was going on. Questions were asked. I slowed down and backed up a bit. More questions were asked. The students were frustrated, and I couldn’t move the class forward. I want to tell you what was going on for me at the time, what I realized afterward, and what I think was happening for the class as a whole.

What was happening for the class as a whole? The students became mathematically liberated. They were involved and active, and they weren’t going to let me take the class to a place that they were uncomfortable with. They wouldn’t let me do things that they couldn’t understand, and they didn’t back down. I feel so proud of all of them for taking that power. I know that some students felt fine with how the lesson was going, either because they felt they understood things well or because they didn’t want to understand, just to follow my lead. But there were several that found their lack of understanding unacceptable, felt that they could understand the material, and felt powerful enough in the class to insist that I help them understand.

What was going on for me? I was frustrated, scared, and upset. The feeling that I had during part of that class is that the students were taking over, and that once they had control they were going to humiliate me. Isn’t that interesting? I was facing a classroom full of students, many of whom had felt humiliated and ashamed in math classes in the past. I know that because they wrote about their experiences, and we have talked about them on more than one occasion. In a typical classroom (and my classroom is often typical, even though I aspire to be different), the teacher holds all of the power. We determine what is talked about, for how long. We determine when something is done correctly. We even determine when we’ve provided sufficient explanation and its time to move one. I have been trying to give an increasing amount of control of those things to my students, and what I learned yesterday is that you have to be careful what you wish for, because I did not feel safe when the students had control. I’m not talking about my physical safety here, but rather that I had made myself vulnerable to the students and that they could really hurt me.

It wasn’t until the class was over, and I look at some of the student responses to the class* that I realized that they were trying to hurt me, and that they still liked me. The only thing that kept me going during the class was remembering that I had established an environment of trust in the classroom and that I just couldn’t violate it, no matter what. I couldn’t shut the students down, so I kept going. It wasn’t until I felt safe and was able to unpack what was happening for me emotionally that I realized  how awesome the events of class really were.

As a final note, I realized last night where I went wrong in my attempt to move the class forward on the path to Julia sets. I gave them a completely arbitrary and inauthentic notion of squaring complex numbers. I may just as well have called it “some weird formula we do” instead of squaring. Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. As a matter of fact the way we were able to move forward is to stop talking about complex numbers, and just look at the process as a weird way to start with a point in the plane and get a different point. The real problem happened because I pretended that I was showing them something authentic and comprehensible. I gave them 2 minutes on complex numbers and acted as if that was enough to understand the squaring process. Of course it wasn’t, but I assumed the students would just trust me about the formula and move on to using it, rather than trying to understand it. In hindsight, I either should have gone carefully over complex numbers or not mentioned them at all, or perhaps mentioned them as a side comment with the suggestion that if they were interested in further explanation, I’d be happy to talk to them outside of class. I should not have pretended I was teaching them about complex numbers when  was really doing nothing of the sort.


*I have the student write a few sentences about class after most classes, including what went well, what needs changing, and anything else they need to tell me.

Being Dissapointed and the Fractal Nature of School

We’re getting toward midterms and spring break at my college, which means that I’m wrestling with disappointment. This week, I’m disappointed that so many students are missing class. And I’m disappointed in the energy they are putting behind their work. Being disappointed really sucks. I immediately personalize it (“They hate me”) and then get incredulous (“Don’t they realize how hard I’m working for them? Don’t they realize that when they do lackluster work and don’t even show up that it hurts all of us?”) and then I get mad and mean (“I’ll get them back when their grades reflect their poor effort!”). I’m not proud of going from hurt to bewildered to hostile, but I’m only human and I can’t separate my feelings so easily from my job as an educator (as I wrote about a few weeks ago). Midterm time always feels like the end of the honeymoon to me. I realize that they aren’t the perfect enthusiastic students that I wanted, and they realize that I’m not the teacher that will make math easy or effortless. I have to remind myself that there are problems that I can’t solve for students, and that many of them have nothing whatsoever to do with me. I think back to what I was like as a college student and remember that I skipped classes like I was allergic to them and once wrote out the lyrics to a Beastie Boys song because I had no idea how to start answering any of the questions on a calculus exam. I turned out OK (although I did fail calculus) and they will too.

What I was really wanting to write about today is how as teachers our struggles are the same as our students’ struggles. You know what I want as a teacher? I want to know how to be successful. I want to know what tricks I have to do and what buttons I need to press in order to have students that are creative, competent, and successful. I want to know the best way to teach every topic and the right way to respond to student difficulties. I want to know an easy way of telling if I’m doing the right thing in the classroom. I get really frustrated when I look for those answers and they aren’t out there, and I also get frustrated when the answers are out there, but the methods proposed don’t work for me. I get easily overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem of how to be a good teacher.

You know what my students want? They want to know the tricks and methods that will make them competent and successful. They want to know the right way to do every problem. They want an easy way to tell if they are “doing it right.” They get frustrated when they can’t find that kind of structure, and they get frustrated when the methods they find don’t have any meaning or don’t work for them. They want sample solutions for every possible problem. They get overwhelmed by the enormity of the subjects I am teaching them and the difficulty of finding a path through those subjects.

And you know what my administration wants? They want to know the tricks to making a school that produces bright and capable alumni that go on to graduate school or successful careers. They want to know the right way to structure majors and general education to meet those goals in a cost-effective manner. They want an easy method to assess students and faculty so they know if the school is “doing it right.” They get frustrated when faculty screw up their plans  — they’re looking for simple solutions that are quick to implement everyone gets overwhelmed by the enormity of the task of providing students with a quality post-secondary education.

So we’re all doing the same thing, just at different scales. Kind of fractal, really, which is nice since I’m teaching students about fractals right now in Math, Art, and Design.