Tell me about yourself.
I'm a single mom of an adopted (in infancy) son, who is now 17. I teach math at a community college. I know that the earth is burning up, and that we should be changing everything, but I don't know how. Because of this, I decided not to take a sabbatical to write a calculus book - I want to keep myself free to change direction.
The book I put together, Playing with Math: Stories from Math Circles, Homeschoolers, and Passionate Teachers didn't fit in the usual categories. It’s math ed, but not classroom-oriented. It’s about math for kids, but written to the adults in their lives. We have still managed to sell over a thousand copies. (Of course I had fantasies of being on Oprah and selling a million copies. But I'm not that good at marketing.)
I'm working on a much shorter book now, which also doesn't fit in the usual categories. It's partially fiction, partially non-fiction, with lots of math in it. Its provisional title is Althea and the Mystery of the Complex Numbers. If this works out well, I might have Althea encounter the mysteries of calculus, and still get to write some of what I had in mind for that textbook I'm not going to write, with no pressure to produce.
I have a blog, Math Mama Writes where I write about anything math-related. I have a second blog, Renaissance Rose, where I was writing anything that didn't have a math connection. But once I started spending time on facebook, I stopped writing there.
Some teachers have a preference in the age range and grade they teach. I know for myself that I’ve been at my best teaching at the high school level.
What differences do you see between teaching students at the community college and teaching younger minds through your Math Circles?
Younger students are great fun - when they choose to be there. Usually, teaching younger students means teaching students who have not chosen to be there, and I am not good at that. Partly because I have mixed feelings about it. We all learn best in situations we've chosen.
Younger kids are more likely than adults to get excited about new ideas. (Although I have a Chinese student at the college who is always excited about math, and her enthusiasm really adds to the class.)
I would love to do a math class for homeschooled girls. Then I'd get to work with a younger crowd, and they'd be there by choice.
Each age has its own delights, though.
Can you describe a Math Circle or two that you’ve hosted? One of the advantages of meeting regularly with classroom students is that you can build up trust over time to transform an “I hate math” student into an avid learner. It seems as if you have a lot less time to create that transformation during a Math Circle event.
Math Circles don't have to be one-time events. Most of my favorite math circles met for a number of weeks. I have two favorites…
One was a group of Precalculus students who were interested enough to meet outside of classtime. We worked on questions about Pythagorean triples, whole number triples (a-b-c) that satisfy the Pythagorean theorem. Will c always be odd in a primitive Pythagorean triple? (Primitive means there is no common factor. So 3-4-5 is a PPT and 6-8-10 is not.) How can we find a way to come up with all possible PPTs? This is a very algebra heavy topic, so they got lots of practice with their algebra skills, but in the context of some fascinating questions. I believe we met for 5 to 8 weeks.
The other math circle I love is one I've done with many groups. The cards for the game of Spot It have 8 pictures on them. Every card in the deck matches every other card on exactly one picture. How did they do it?! This one is not algebra heavy, and has a great entry point for younger kids, where they make their own decks with just 4 pictures per card. I'm not sure whether any group actually finished answering the initial question, but it's great fun to work on it and notice the insights that pop up.
Students of all ages seem to enjoy logic games that are easy to play but challenging to master, such as SET and Spot It. I’ve always wondered the process the game designers went through to create Spot It: a Math Circle for students to create their own mini-versions sounds like a wonderful opportunity for playing with math.
You’ve mentioned your desire to teach a math class for homeschooled girls. Do you think girls “play with math” differently? How can parents best encourage their curiosity?
Spot It is not a logic game, it's a game of quick observation skills. That's actually why my son liked it - he beat me often.
I don't think girls necessarily play with math differently. Sometimes, due to societal push, girls play less with blocks and building toys. That affects 3-D visualization skills. The reason to have just girls is because they interact more freely when in a girls-only group. (I wrote a chapter in my book, Playing with Math, about girls and math. In that chapter I address many of the things that get in the way of girls and women excelling in math.)
On Twitter, the hashtag #MTBoS is an acronym for “Math Twitter Blog-o-Sphere.” Are math blogs dead? There seems to be a scarcity of blog comments on even the most popular math blogs compared to five years ago.
I agree that the activity level in math blogs has gone down. But I sure hope that doesn't mean dead.
For me personally, three things have affected my blog participation. For 6 1/2 years (2008 to 2015, I think), I was working on my book. At the high point, I was following over 400 math teacher blogs, and commenting often. When the book was done, I backed off quite a bit. Another factor, which actually happened earlier, was when google killed off Google Reader (2013). It was a great way to follow blogs, and allowed me to search stuff I had read. I moved to feedly, which didn't have a search facility at first, and limped along for the next few years. After the book was done, I spent more and more time on facebook, and less and less time reading blogs. I am currently off facebook for a week, so I caught up on my feedly reading (and on twitter). I see some good blog posts, but not as much math as in the past. (It sucks that we depend on these big corporations for our interactions.)
That's regarding reading math blogs. I've also written less on my blog in recent years. But there are others, whose work I see on twitter, who are still writing math blogs. And maybe I'll start writing again. I'm not good at predicting.
Can you tell us about the book you edited, Playing with Math: Stories from Math Circles, Homeschoolers, and Passionate Teachers.
I loved putting it together. I think it turned out great. I'm glad it's in hundreds of homes. I wish it were in more. I often tell people they'd find a particular chapter interesting or useful.
I interviewed a homeschool educator last year and we spent a lot of time discussing how important explorations were to the learning process.
For a homeschooling parent who feels they aren’t good at math, what advice and suggestions does your book provide?
That's a great question. I hope that reading stories will be a low-stress way to think about math for them. One story, The Math Haters Come Around, is by a homeschooling mom who hated math, with a daughter who also hated math. She was searching for a way to make math work for her daughter, and discovered Vedic math. They both loved it. My guess is, it was different enough not to bring up all the bad memories they both had of their previous math classes. That story is probably cathartic for many parents.
My book is also full of ideas and resources, and has links to lots of great websites. They can follow whatever path works best for them. Their goal should be to get over their fears and play with math, together with their kids.
How can we best stay up to date with you?
I don't blog much these days, but most anything I have to say about math education shows up on my blog, Math Mama Writes.
Let your joy direct you, in math and in your life. I have periods where a particular problem inspires me to work on math, explore the background, try other similar problems, etc. And then I let it go for a while, and do something else. I've played on and off with Archimedes' method for finding pi. I'm trying to write a paper about it. I am writing that Althea story. I've made a collection of visual puzzles, because I think we don't spend enough time on visual thinking skills in college math classes. I think I've blogged about each of these projects. Blogs may not be as active as they used to be, but they are still out there, with all the lovely discussions archived. I have spent hours hopping around from one interesting post to another. You can too.