Monday, September 5, 2016

Write to Survive

I was lamenting to a friend of mine about how I can't seem to get myself past worksheets for practice in math class. Even though I have access, and regularly use, a variety of digital and hands-on tools for my students to practice applying their knowledge, I always seem to regress back to worksheets and problem sets because I feel the need to see their written work as evidence of their thought processes. He casually said to me, "Sounds like you have a creativity problem," and before anyone cries foul, he really didn't mean it in a critical way, it was just an observational solution to the problem. At any rate, it stuck. It didn't hurt my feelings or anything like that, but in the end I just realized he was right. Realizing he was right is one thing, doing something about it is quite another.

Spontaneity and creativity don't come naturally to me and it's almost amusing to me to think about how to be spontaneous when the very nature of it is to not think too hard about it at all. This week I took a brief detour from my original plans when I was chatting with a colleague of mine who teaches English and he was telling me about a writing exercise they were doing in his classes: writing fairytales. The cogs in my head started to spin. Remember my post about clear water? Shouldn't writing about math come as fluently as speaking about it? What if I implemented both strategies? Would it work? We had reached a juncture in the lessons as we prepared for the launch of our first major project when I could actually take the time to do a writing exercise. It was either that or wait a few weeks. I decided to be spontaneous. I asked my students to write a fairy tale incorporating some mathematics. Not story problems, not stories about math, but stories with math.

And I got mixed results.

I became impressed with the conversation that was happening. One group talked about a story about a kid who was in a bike race who decided that by riding through the center he would travel less distance than by traversing the circumference of the track and they proved it using the circumference formula and its relationship to diameter. Another wrote a tribute to Gene Wilder's Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in the wake of Wilder's death. In that story, the conversation stemmed around the idea that the factory had shut down and was abandoned after Wonka died and that a group of children wanted to bring back the magic. They couldn't measure the pipes and so their solution was to pour heated chocolate, let it cool, and then take measurements of the cooled chocolate. All pretty interesting stuff. At least when they were talking about it.

As it turns out, talking about math and writing about math are two different things and that's probably why I got mixed results in these writing exercises. It's incredibly valuable stuff. I didn't think that the two were that different but maybe it's just the difference between speaking and writing anyway and has nothing to do with mathematics at all. I'm hoping to find that out this year but fluency, speaking and writing clearly, is still the goal.

Spontaneity makes me incredibly uncomfortable because I don't like it when things go wrong, but on the other hand, maybe creativity and spontaneity are related. Maybe I struggle to get past worksheets and problem sets because they're predictable and I can tell if something is going wrong. Or maybe I'm just stodgy. But in the words of Mr. Wonka, a little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men.

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