## Trying to find math inside everything else

### Vimes’ Theory of Socioeconomic Injustice

As I was planning my linear functions unit, I noticed a problem about someone choosing between two electric companies, with the standard idea of one having a larger start-up cost but a lower monthly rate. I realized these problems are very common, and they reminded me of of a quotation from my favorite author, Terry Pratchett:

The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money.

Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.

But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.

This was the Captain Samuel Vimes ‘Boots’ theory of socioeconomic unfairness.

– Men at Arms

I wanted to share this concept with my class, so I looked for problems. One thing I realized, though, was that many of these problems involved one person choosing between two things. This makes it so there is one clearly correct answer.

But oftentimes, in the real world, people don’t have a choice. One person can afford the upfront cost to pay less in the long run, but another person can’t, and winds up paying more overall, as in the Pratchett quote above. So I decided to reframe the problems as comparisons between two people, to highlight that injustice.

The lesson started with a model problem, then I gave each group a different problem from the set below.

(I went through this page of unisex names to make all of the problems gender-neutral.)

Each table worked on a different problem (with some differentiation on which group worked on which), then they jigsawed and, in their new groups, they shared out their problems and how they solved them. Then, most importantly, they looked for similarities and differences between the problems.

We then read the Pratchett quote and discussed its meaning, and students had to agree or disagree (making a claim and warrant for each). We had a good discussion on whether it really applied to today’s world or not.

### Vietnamese Age and the SAT

Dwight Eisenhower was born on October 14, 1890, and died on March 28, 1969. What was his age, in years, at the time of his death?

(A) 77
(B) 78
(C) 79
(D) 80

When my boyfriend went to his grandmother’s funeral, he found himself confused about exactly how old she was. Was she 93 or 94? He heard different people say different things. Eventually he figured it out. In Vietnam (and apparently in other places in East Asia), when you are born, you are 1. The next year, you are 2. And this ticks over at the beginning of the solar year, not on your birthday. So I, born on December 22, would, 374 days after my birth, have been considered to be 3 years old using this reckoning. (It might be more accurate to say that I’m in my 3rd year – being alive during 1985, 1986, and 1987 at that point.)

Earlier this week, in my SAT Problem Solving class, we encountered the problem at the top of this post. The correct answer, according to the book, is (B) 78. But according to the Vietnamese reckoning, he’d be 80, and the answer would be (D).

Before my boyfriend went to that funeral, I wouldn’t have even looked at this question twice. I had never heard of another way of determining age. And I’m willing to bet the people who wrote this question haven’t, either.

It’s a small example of the way tests can be biased, and how having more diverse voices in the process could help avoid this kind of mistake.

I’m currently on the road back from TMC16 in Minneapolis. (Ed: See, that’s when I started this post….) This long drive back is giving us all a lot of time to process and reflect on the experience. (I guess Rachel was right about that!)

I think I approached TMC differently this year. Lots of people have spoken about the rejuvenative properties of TMC, and I think I really needed them. I mean, everyone always feels tired when the summer finally rolls around, and rest and energy makes that better, but this time I needed something more than that. And TMC provided.

It started with Descon. You can read more about that in Rachel’s post here. But when I was struggling to choose a morning session, I settled on Tessellation Nation. Both those experiences gave me a deep joy of forming questions, exploring ideas, having successes, failures, and breakthroughs. It was like doing a hard reboot on my mind.

Some things I played with in the morning session:

Here I was trying to picture creating some sort of “inversion” tile that would connect the lizards of different chirality.

With that in mind, my afternoons provided me with guidance about the upcoming school year. Really, I can sort them in what, how, and why.

What: I went to Jonathan’s session about hacking up the curriculum. His main idea was that the curriculum should not be focused around the nouns, but rather the verbs. That is, instead of having, say, a linear unit where you solve, graph, model, and then a quadratic unit where you do the same, have a solve unit where you do both types.

The approach sorta lends itself to the kind of spiraling that I was inspired by Mary Bourassa and Alex Overwijk to try, but was afraid to. So this is a step in the right direction.

How: I’ve heard about Talking Points for a while, but never had any experience with them, so I had to go to Elizabeth’s session. It was really nice to walk through the activities and see how the points can spark cognitive dissonance in their sequencing. I also enjoyed Elizabeth’s “deleted scenes” method of instructions, which reminded me of the dialogues in the Algebra Project.

Julie‘s session on giving feedback was helpful. I’ve worked on giving feedback without grades, but it can get a little overwhelming, so it was nice to get some strategies for streamlining the process. I think the most important one for me to remember as I start the year is to make space for the comments built right in to the assignment. That’ll make the whole process easier. Also, I need to remember that EVERYTHING should get a comment, not just things that are wrong. That way comments don’t become a proxy for grades.

Joe‘s session on teaching moves for implementing games was just what I needed. I can come up with some great games, but sometimes when it comes time to play them in class, it looks more like “Okay, here’s a game, go play it.” The most important one IMO was to have the students notice/wonder about the board/materials before the game is introduced. It’s a tenet of game design that a game is well-designed if players can (mostly) figure out how to play without looking at the instruction booklet. So the noticing and wondering works well with that.

Tracy’s keynote was amazing in so many ways, but she did hit on something I’ve been working on with my math coach and is now, I’m glad to see, becoming more of the thing in the MTBoS – never skip the close. Gotta work on that more.

Why: Social Justice, of course. Jose’s keynote obviously hit on those notes – as he said, students need to trust you before they can learn from you.

I went to Andrew’s session, which wound up just being a small conversation with him, me, Sadie, and Sharon. That’s where I decided my #1TMCThing – to decorate my classroom with more explicit social justice signifiers (like a rainbow flag, or a BLM poster).

Then at Annie’s session, she talked about her Mathematicians: Not Just White Dudes project where she tried to present mathematicians that identify the same as her students – even when they got super precise on her (“Is there a gay female Dominican mathematician?”) I definitely want to bring that into my class – although I would like it if, since I’ll be teaching calculus, I could get a good variety who contributed to calculus (or I guess just used it.) There as a group we also decided to start using the hashtag #sjmath (after I determined it wasn’t be used for anything else) to share social justice math resources, which Julie pulled a lot together here.

I started writing this on the ride home from TMC, but I ended it now, and I think that was actually a good thing. TMC is so early in the summer (for me) that I don’t go into vacation-mode until after. Now that I’m actually ramping up for school again, it was good to reflect and remember what I actually want to bring into my class. So my procrastination actually paid off! (For once!)

To conclude, here’s the camp song in MP3 form.

### When I First Learned about Privilege

During the slow Parent-Teacher Conferences tonight, some of my colleagues and I got into a discussion on privilege. We shared some things about our experiences, and I figured I could write up what I talked about for my #MTBoS30 post tonight.

I used to think racism didn’t exist anymore, that affirmative action was reverse racism, and other such things. On top of that, when I’d hear about things that certain groups faced, I would just counter with my own. My family was stolidly working class (though not as poor as when my oldest brother was growing up), my “summer camp” growing up was sitting in the public school cafeteria playing Connect Four, I’m queer and have faced my share of discrimination from that. Certainly not privileged, right?

When I went to Bard for grad school, one of the classes we took was called Identity, Culture, and the Classroom, taught by Michael Sadowski. There were a lot of interesting readings and deep sharing of stories in that class, but the single most powerful moment was when we did an activity about Peggy McIntosh’s Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.

Michael had us all go outside and stand in a line on the grass. As he read he had us look straight ahead and, if the sentence was true for us, take one step forward. As he went down the list, there were a lot of items I did not step forward for because of the aforementioned class and LGBT spheres. At first, I felt like this supported my feelings, as I watched much of the class pull far ahead of me.

When Michael had finished, he told us to look around. At this point, I was about halfway across the grass. Ahead of me all the way of the front were all of the other White students. To my side, about level with me, was my friend Jack, who is Asian.  And then I looked behind me and, back at the start, were all the Black and Hispanic students in the class.

In that moment, the idea of intersectionality suddenly became clear. Sure, I may have not been privileged in some domains, but I was privileged in others, and this was a physical representation of that fact. It felt like my eyes were opened and I saw the world as it really is, and I haven’t closed them since.

Talking to my colleagues, it seems they had similar experiences, so I know mine isn’t unique or particularly noteworthy. My one colleague was fascinated that I grew up in Queens (the most diverse area on the planet), went to the schools that I did (middle, high, and college), and it still took until I was 23 for this idea to get through to me.