Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Lenten Teaching

Two things have me thinking about lent and teaching.

The first is just lent itself. An ancient word for spring, it's a fascinating spiritual practice; the idea of preparation for a holiday by engaging in disciplines. The traditional disciplines are prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

  • Prayer - most of my prayer time is in contemplative prayer. This can be thought of as emptying oneself, filling yourself with the Spirit, or relationship building with your higher power. For me it's a matter of prioritizing, because it's just as easy for me to put off prayer as it is to put off a phone call or email. (If I owe you either I apologize.)
  • Fasting - usually thought of as giving something up that you know you either particularly like or would be better off without. Lent is when my father realized he was an alcoholic, as he found himself literally unable to stop. (Later he gained sobriety through a twelve step program. for more than 30 years.)
  • Alms giving - often thought of as money for charity, more broadly it is service or caregiving for the marginalized, suffering or powerless.

For some reason, I've never thought before this year about what this personal life practice would be like in my professional life. I look forward to lent every year for it's sense of renewal. Maybe it's like New Year's resolutions, without having to pretend that you're going to be doing it forever.

What would these disciplines be like applied to my teaching life? Here's what I've got this year. (Hopefully I can do this every year as well.)

  • Prayer - on one hand, just praying for my students. I do this anyway, but have been more intentional about it this past week. Jesus knew what he was doing when he asked us to pray for our enemies. It increases compassion and empathy even there. How much more for people we already care about! But also, I'm trying to think about this in terms of relationships as well. What are the things I can do to strengthen my relationships with my students?
  • Fasting - this might be where I started. What do I do (or not do) in the classroom that I should give up? My goal is to try to interact more with individuals and groups while they're working. I tend to let them really work independently, and I don't want to start that, but it's okay, I think, to become a part of their group for a little while. Also goes with the relationship idea.
  • Alms giving - where can I be more supportive and generous to my students? All I can say so far, is that I'm on the lookout.

The second thing is a blogpost by Matt Larson, NCTM president, the Elusive Search for Balance. He gives some history about which of conceptual understanding, procedural fluency, and application have received more emphasis over the years, and advocates for balance, in alignment with the National Resource Council's 2001 recommendations:
"We want students to know how to solve problems (procedures), know why procedures work (conceptual understanding), and know when to use mathematics (problem solving and application) while building a positive mathematics identity and sense of agency."
The comments are also fascinating, with a lot of big math ed names.

My first reaction is that this is less of a pendulum swinging and more of a pendulum stuck to the procedural side of the triangle with chewing gum. When have we not emphasized procedure? I think in the research community we might swing a little, but in the teaching community emphasis on problem solving remains rare. NOT TO FAULT TEACHERS, as I have never known a community more focused on doing good for others. But we know that people tend to teach as they were taught, which does not push the pendulum.

But, of course, I do know a lot of wonderful teachers who are working in the balance that Matt is talking about. Thank you, #MTBoS. How did they get that way? We are drawn to systemic programs and sweeping curriculum changes, but that doesn't seem to change teachers.

What if it's more like discipleship? Teachers change when someone they know shares a better way with them. When their questions cause them to seek a solution and they find someone trying something that might help. It's not the person up at the front of the room with a microphone, it's the community of practice. This is something the #MTBoS gets right.

I've been thrilled with the increase in attention going to teachers like Dan, Fawn, Graham and Christopher. Their keynotes are amazing, and I've seen them light some fires in teachers' hearts. But we need to connect with those teachers and support them in this new direction. That is what's going to finally unstick the pendulum. Tell two friends and they tell two friends. Go hear Fawn together, then give a visual pattern or problem solving situation a try together, too.

To circle back to the twelve steps, the twelfth one is a doozy, and I think is what I'm trying to get at.
Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
Having found out what math learning can be like...

Of course, I'd love to know what you think, if you care to share.


  1. I'm intrigued by the ways in which our faith informs our professional practice, our work as teachers and also as learners ourselves. It's something I've thought about, and you've inspired me to explore this more in my own writing. On this subject, I keep coming back to this beautiful and profound essay by Francis Su:

    1. Loved that essay - good precursor to his new Math for Human Flourishing! ( ). I, of course, would be interested in hearing about your connections!