The State of Math

(7/31/19, I did not publish this at the time, but with the mini question from @HKhodai and @samjshah2 for #VConHM, I felt it was time to share. Mini-Prompt: Please share a time when doing mathematics was a dehumanizing experience)

April 30, 2019

I just spent the weekend in Duluth MN. My colleague and I presented all day Friday about inclusivity and diversity in math education. We created a space and time for an Equity Gathering and more than 60 people showed up. To say we were overwhelmed and excited is just the tip of all the emotions we were feeling.

MCTM Equity Gathering 2019

MCTM Equity Gathering 2019

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Fast forward to Monday night. My daughter has been taking Calc 1 at a local university. She asked for my help to study for the upcoming midterm, that will lead right into the final assessment next week. As a former AP Calc teacher, I thought it was a good idea for my daughter and I to collaborate and prep for the upcoming exam. We set aside the entire evening and we were ready to work hard.


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Now, enter all the emotions: excitement, shame, guilt, sorrow…
I have always been that parent that could help my children with math homework. I have worked in the profession for almost 30 years, not including my successful HS and college math work. And then, my child, working two jobs, getting A’s in all of her other university level classes, battling severe anxiety is working with tutors and TAs and not giving up on the math class.  She is failing, but still persevering...until last night.

We sat down and she shared the 30 question review with me. She is not allowed to use a graphing calculator on any assessments and there is not answer key to check our work. As I looked at the problems, my former knowledge of Calculus was not returning easily (it’s been at least 20 years) and by limiting my visual learning and recall, I began to hear the voice…

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“You taught AP Calculus?”

“Were you really qualified to teach such a high level of math?”

“How are you unable to help your own child with her math?”

“And you are a leader in math education?”


We all have our demons. We all have THAT voice. And for me, I have worked hard on silencing and diminishing that voice. But triggers and old shame continue to sideswipe me, even into my 50th year…

AM I WORTHY?

I sit paralyzed at the table while trying to help my daughter, keep my emotions in check and support her in her time of need. My lack of recall frustrate me and shame creeps in. I can feel my daughter’s anxiety mounting next to me and mine is increasing as well.  We read over some problems and I find that I can attempt the last question: A volume problem, rotating two functions around a line. 

So I begin, drawing a picture (because, remember, no graphing calculator). I am able to draw the functions, but I have to find the points of intersection. My daughter and I are working side by side and we get to a quadratic function. We both check to see if we can factor, and we can’t. I run through the other ways I can solve (Oh, BUT NO GRAPHING CALCULATOR), so quadratic formula it is. My daughter’s anxiety is revving up: face whitening, shallow breathing, no words. My daughter moves away from the table to use anxiety reducing strategies as I engage with the math, to prove to me and my daughter, but mostly me, that I can still do this math. I start with the quadratic formula and my solutions are:

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Seriously?!

So now I have to evaluate the entire integral at each of these points (AND NO EFFING GRAPHING CALCULATOR) with the polynomial degree of 5...and one of the now critical numbers is negative…so I’m sure I won’t make any arithmetic mistakes along the way to get to the calculating of The Volume of a 3D object formed by rotating the area of a 2D space formed by two functions.

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So now we are both emotional.  While I am working on the problem with my rusty, recalled arithmetic and algebraic skills, my daughter is emailing her advisor and figuring out how to withdraw. We end the failed tutoring session with a hug, my stated pride for her and all her effort and we begin to watch The Avengers Infinity War (because, you know, we need to still see The Avengers End Game).

I am sharing this personal story because this is the lived experiences of so many children, young people, parents and loved ones in the United States...ALL IN THE NAME OF MATH EDUCATION. 

I am heartbroken.

I am rageful.

I am distressed.

I need us, the math ed community, to STEP UP! 

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Stop perpetuating this false narrative that we all need to take some bulls%^* version of calculus to get through high school, into college and/or at collegiate level to get some degree!

Stop judging the students that have not learned some basic fact when we have technology that can do that math for us!  ASK BETTER QUESTIONS!

Start believing that all students can and DO succeed IN SPITE OF THE MATH ED BARRIERS WE HAVE PUT IN FRONT OF SO MANY OF OUR STUDENTS!

The State of MATH ED IS S%&*! And, if you don’t know that, you are not paying attention.