This Week at Global Math – 10/20/20


Curated By Chase Orton @mathgeek76

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Promoting Mathematical Literacy:
What our students need to know, why they struggle, how we can help!


Learning math is complex and challenging. Participants will have the opportunity to consider what our students really need to know, why math is difficult for many students, from social, emotional, and environmental elements, to the learning profiles for dysgraphia and dyscalculia, and how we can best support our math teachers and diverse learners.

Presented by: Mindy Adair, PhD

To register for this webinar, click here.

From the Writing Team

Editor’s Note: This piece is submitted by a guest writer, Paige, who is a second year graduate student studying mathematics.

The Choice to Stay

This piece is inspired by Benjamin Dickman, who reminded me that I am a normal person, and to whom I said the phrase “I have to prioritize my safety and sanity over my learning.” My call to action: If we want to teach and learn math with humanity, we need to recognize the humanity in others, and act with humility ourselves.
When I was in undergrad, I read Judd Apatow’s “Sick in the Head”, and I was inspired. I identified a lot with his situation: he was a nobody in the comedy world, and he was staring up at the faces of giants. He could see people where he wanted to be, and getting the chance to talk to them, one-on-one, was like permanently moving to Disneyland. I used to dream about a project where I would go meet mathematicians at conferences and I would interview them. I held on to that dream for a long time. I used to imagine people would know my name as the author of that book, the person who interviewed the greats before they were great, more like an assistant than a fellow mathematician.
This book pretty much exists now, in the form of Living Proof, a wonderful book freely available through the AMS and MAA here. It has the stories of so many incredible mathematicians. But there’s something I couldn’t escape in reading it, and that was pain.
In the book I envisioned writing, there was mostly joy. The interviewees spoke only of a passion for the purest maths, lives well-lived, dreams fulfilled or nearly so. There was recollection, reflection. There were mostly older, white men. I didn’t realize this until much after the inception of my daydream, and this realization spoiled it for me. I’m still very proud of and impressed by those fictitious mathematicians I crafted life stories for in my head, but this picture I wanted to paint was woefully incomplete. It did what Instagram and other platforms now do to many of us, forcing us to compare ourselves to other people’s highlight reels, and upon the very natural conclusion of our own insufficiency, painting us into a very ugly corner of ‘not good enough’. There’s a reason I always imagined myself as the author of a book about mathematicians and not one of those interviewed – even in my own head, I didn’t – and don’t –  belong here.
It’s not that I don’t deserve to be here – I do. It isn’t that I don’t want to be here – I do! But it is undeniable that in most rooms, in most math spaces, I stick out like a sore thumb. And I’m white! I’m a domestic student. I have a supportive family, even if they all don’t know what I do and some of them hate math pretty vehemently. There are so many challenges I don’t ever have to face, and yet in each class I take I feel like there is a target on my back. I can feel eyes when I move or make noise; god forbid I have to leave lecture for any reason. This constant awareness, this hypervigilance, it’s pretty exhausting. Actually, it’s extremely exhausting.
You might ask yourself at this point, “Why is she here then? What is the point of this piece? Will she end with a heartwarming message about hope and perseverance?”
The answer to the last question is no. I don’t plan to pretend that things are going to get better for me. Statistically they won’t, and the world is (literally) on fire, so my optimism is actually at an historic low. But the answer to the first question I think is the most important: I’m here because I choose, actively and every day, that I want to be. I am not here because I didn’t know what else to do; the truth is to the contrary. I now spend a lot of my daydreaming hours thinking about all of the other easier paths available to me. I talk with my friends about backup plans. If you know me, you know that being a goat farmer somewhere near a National Forest where I bake bread and sell grilled-goat-cheese-sandwiches and coffee to tourists is #1 on the list. But I choose to be here! In this environment so filled with toxicity I often find myself choking on the fumes. WHY?
In part, it is my own stubbornness that keeps me here. I have started this degree, so I would like to finish it. But more than this, I love math. I cannot overstate this. It’s gorgeous! It is fun, and complicated, and silly, and technical, and hard! I adore all of those things. I love how deceptively truthful math can be. How obvious, how convoluted, how multifaceted. “Math” to me looks like a Monet, simultaneously chaotic and perfectly concordant. It’s a mess! But it’s *my* mess.
This passion, and to a degree loyalty, to math still is not the most important factor in my choice to stay. The biggest reason, the only one I can think of that really matters, is how much I love the people here. This is harder to describe for me. I could name some names, but it would just be a terribly long list of people you could easily find on Twitter. When I think of these people, how they have carried me, helped me, buoyed me, gratitude for them and for those who have laid the foundation on which I stand almost obscures my faculties to describe how much they mean to me. I also feel a very real and ardent responsibility to those who will come after me. How can I help them? How can I make pathways for them to walk, to smooth the cobblestones into cement for a more accessible road? What can I do that will open a window and clear the stale air that permeates our hallways; how can I keep them safe so that they can use all of the space in their hearts for loving the math and the people, instead of having to fill so many chambers with grief and despair?
The message in this piece you are looking for is here: we are struggling. Struggling to breathe, to be architects of our fields, to belong, to feel safe. If you take anything away from this, let it be compassion for those around you, and let it be an understanding. When you see the only (blank) in the room, understand that they are brave. They are courageous, and every moment in that room is costing them a great deal. Understand that their daydreams have been subject to so many revisions by an inescapable reality that they are actively dealing with grief. Give deference to all that, and be generous. Be warm. Follow @annegalloway’s poignant advice: “We’re all smart. Distinguish yourself by being kind.”
I still want to do that book someday. You can DM me if you want to share a story, or have a vision for how to peel back the Insta filter.

Paige [@paaiiigeee]

On “social justice math” versus math for social justice

Several years ago I completed a superintendent-mandated PD series for a curriculum claimed to re-engage students with limited prior success in mathematics through real-world, “social justice-oriented” applications. The first model lesson – an exploration of police brutality incidence using measures of central tendency – was anchored by a video of a handcuffed man, facing a wall, being shoved to the floor and beaten by a police officer.  In the ensuing discussion among the mostly-white group, one teacher posited that the handcuffed man might have “deserved” to be beaten (“we don’t know what he said to the cop”), while another expressed her enthusiasm for the lesson (“I think students of color would feel their negative experiences with police brutality are being validated.”)  I was exhausted: by the video, the conversation, and the prospect of any students being made to complete a series of tedious calculations with the goal of assessing whether their lived experiences were truly “valid.”
While recognizing that there are much better curricula (and, frankly, teachers) aiming to dissect issues of social justice and equity through a mathematical lens, I have since become much more ambivalent about the tradeoffs of doing so.  As an undergraduate I gravitated toward math classes and formal logic classes in particular because of the opportunities they provided for temporarily disconnecting from the “real world”; and, through teaching math in summer programs throughout college, I delighted in seeing my own students echo my thrill and frustration of puzzling through new concepts.  It was in seeing my students build critical thinking skills and newfound confidence through these tasks, though, that I first internalized Bob Moses’s views of how math education could also serve as a mechanism for social change – not necessarily through diving into questions of police brutality and disproportionate minority contact with the justice system (although there is, of course, a time and place for this), but through equipping students with reasoning skills, tools, and language for making sense of their experiences. I wonder, now, which students we are potentially losing as we increasingly prioritize math’s practical applications – even purposeful ones – over the creativity and freedom that the field affords.
– Nasriah Morrison [@nasriahmorrison]

Strength in Numbers: Building towards Justice in Mathematics Education

On Saturday, October 17, I gave a talk at Elmhurst University with the same title as this GMD entry. You can find a link to the talk here or in the tweets below. (Note: I caution against interpreting the slides too literally; without the words that were spoken, it will be easy to read them out of context. I am looking into the possibility of securing a copy of the recording.)

Rather than personally expatiating at length, I am using the rest of my entry this week to paste an email, verbatim, that a conference participant sent me. It contains a request around potential collaboration, which I am hopeful that a GMD reader will take up! (The email address is included at the request of the writer.) When I asked this person around permissions for sharing the email, she responded with:
“You have my permission to use any and all of my email – feel free to edit it down as needed or keep it in its entirety. I might add to it that I had only just begun to wonder if anti-racist/social justice math was even possible while a colleague in my PhD cohort shared about the Elmhurst NOYCE conference. It was surprising and then… I’m not sure of the right feeling, maybe a relief, to find that it is indeed ‘a thing’ and there are already people working on it.”
Here is the email.

Hi Benjamin,
Let me start by thanking you for your presentation yesterday. It was so inspiring and useful. I am a (n informal) STEM teacher but I honestly tend more towards Science Education. I tell people I am infinitely creative when it comes to science and zero creative when it comes to math. I’ve been working to change that.
I just started my PhD in Diversity and Metropolitan studies at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. I tell people it is essentially social justice through education. I am White and grew up in a liberal family; in the past year or so I’ve finally learned the depth of my privilege and how ignorant I was – thinking that because I am a BIPOC ally, I was not part of the problem. I’m working to fix that too ? My 4-month old son is bi-racial, bi-national, and multicultural. I don’t do this work for him, but he is certainly always on my mind as I think about the world I want him to join. It is also because of him that I have to ask you to excuse grammar, spelling, and concision errors here – as a new mom, PhD student, and full-time worker, I have very little free time or mental bandwidth for anything outside of survival mode.
I have a project I keep trying to get someone to do and I haven’t found a good setting for it yet. I thought it might appeal to you and I’m sure you could refine it to make it much better. If you’re interested, maybe we could partner, you pilot, I might be able to help fund materials, we co-author a freely available lesson plan and/or paper.
The basic idea is students create a 3D soundwave. This can be done with 3D printing, paper, washers, beads, or even these vulcanite discs from Ghana (
There are instructions both for building the wave as a series of discs and as a whole 3D unit – I like the discs because of the opportunity for circle math, ratios, etc.
The sound could be anything – a loved one saying “I love you,” a clip of an inspirational speech, their best friend’s laughter. You could go for an environmental justice route and capture the sound of endangered animals, like a whale’s song, or the sound of a mother polar bear humming to her cub to nurse. For social justice you might ask a question like: ‘What does it mean to be powerful?’
The waves can be bracelets, necklaces, keychains, or art. Here’s an example of it as jewelry: and here is an art instillation of Obama giving a State of the Union address:
I think it has the potential to be very powerful and meaningful. I think about cultures with traditions of oral histories, how music and speech move us, and stories of people saving voice messages from deceased loved ones. I realized one night while talking to my grandmother that I didn’t have a recording of her voice. I was too shy to just ask her if I could record her saying things, so I took out my phone and secretly recorded our conversation. In the background is the staccato interruption of her oxygen machine, but I treasure it because it is one of the only recordings of her voice. Why didn’t I do it sooner, or more frequently? My dad read me the same stories over and over when I was a kid. One night I woke up crying because I had dreamt he was dead. I wrote him a letter the next day and asked him to record himself reading one or two of the stories so that I could always have it. He wrote back a lovely letter about how he doesn’t expect to die soon, but told me how much he loves being my dad. A couple of years later at Christmas he presented me with a CD of him reading the entire book. As a parent, I will leave my son many things like that to help him deal with the day I go; I don’t know why more people don’t do things like that for their children. Not that this project has to be about adults in your students’ lives considering their own mortality, but I wonder what kinds of treasures like my CD and Nana recording could come out of a project like this.
If you’re into it, I’d love to talk/brainstorm more. If not, no worries. Thank you again for sharing your lessons, wisdom, and experience with us. You have no idea of the value and inspiration.
Katie Busch [kabusch AT uab DOT edu]
University of Alabama at Birmingham

It is a wonderful feeling to receive a message like the one that Katie sent above. My thanks to Elmhurst University; conference organizers Dr. Robinson, Dr. Brown, and Dr. Cosgrove; the keynote speaker, Dr. Joseph; and all of the participants who have reached out to me through various channels before, during, and after my talk.
Closing remark: By the next time that I am up to contribute to the Global Math Department newsletter, the United States election will have already been held. As you can: Register to vote; plan to vote; cast your vote; and demand the votes be counted.
– Benjamin Dickman [@benjamindickman]


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One thought on “This Week at Global Math – 10/20/20

  1. […] worry, and frustration” (p. 73). Nasriah Morrison (@nasriahmorrison) told a similar story in a previous GMD post of being exhausted and retraumatized by a lesson on police brutality, highlighting the harm that […]