Miss, my brain hurts! You make me think too much.” Meant as an insult, this became the most meaningful compliment I’ve received since becoming a middle school math teacher three years ago. Learning to think, specifically to think logically, is not only the essence of mathematics, it’s a naturally beautiful way of explaining the complex world we live in. As math teachers, it’s our job to discover the art of mathematics for ourselves in order to share it with our students.
My students today see me as a super-math-nerd who gets way too excited about simple math discoveries (such as finding the area of a triangle by cutting rectangles in half). They make fun of the gigantic smile that comes across my face when they say things like “I solved it another way” or “The next answer is …” or “No, I’m right because …” or “Does it still work if …?”
These comments prove that my students are thinking about the problem and care about their solution.
I once started a lesson by showing side-by-side videos of me, a 5-foot-tall woman with with two knee surgeries, and Dwyane Wade, the beloved Miami Heat superstar, playing basketball. My students wanted to know who scored more points. Instead of directly answering their question, I let them extract the important information. Eventually, they wrote an expression using three different variables to describe the number of points Wade and I would score depending on the number and types of shots we would make.
My lessons are focused around a topic question: How big is Florida (area of composite shapes); how are the incomes of different education levels related to the percent of unemployment (statistical analysis); is Ms. Rogel tall enough to ride the Falcon’s Fury roller coaster on our field trip to Busch Gardens (inequalities)? My students explain the world through mathematical equations — how beautiful.
My students assume that I have always been a super-math-nerd and are surprised to hear the contrary. As a Teach for America alumnus still in the classroom, teaching has always been my dream. I love being part of a movement of people passionate about bringing educational equity to all students. However, my excitement for teaching math specifically is because of three teachers and a bachelor’s degree.
Like many of my sixth graders, at the age of 12 I believed that only super-nerds excelled at math. Ms. Hearth, my sixth-grade math teacher, dispelled this myth by treating math as an exciting sport and art form. The magic came alive when I learned that every number could be written as a pattern of 0s and 1s (in base 2). Suddenly, math was cool, and I let myself believe that I could get As.
Then Mr. Friedland, my calculus teacher, made it clear that grades didn’t matter as much as understanding the material. At the end of the year, he told me that I would become a math teacher. I told him that the probability of that happening was zero. You can see why I didn’t get an A in probability, either.
Later on, my bachelor’s degree prepared me to truly fall in love with the art of mathematics, and Elaine Hamilton brought this to life. While doing my student teaching with her, I learned that every math problem can be a puzzle to discover. My own light bulb went off: by learning to love solving math puzzles for myself, I could help my students do the same.
Math education needs to show math as an art, with patterns that can be found, connections that can be made, relevant and irrelevant questions that can be answered, and logical thinking that can be used. No one really knows why math is so good at explaining the world, and that is why it is magical. When teachers transfer this passion to their students, during Mathematics Education Month and every day, it can be a beautiful equation.
Hilla Rogel teaches math at Georgia Jones-Ayers Middle School in the city of Miami.
She is a 2013 Teach For America alumna.