Mailbag #3: Quadratic Poems, Perfect Teachers, and the Controversial Equation of Ugly-Funny

Every month, I comb through the Google search terms that have led people to my blog. Then I reply to them as if they were letters. It’s a thing.

Q: equation of ugly funny?

Obviously, our senses of humor are as distinct and individual as our handwriting, our Facebook profiles, or the shapes of our noses. But in my view, this is the equation:

Q: how to make gf feel good about bad grades?

A: First, I’m glad you care about your girlfriend’s happiness (or, depending what “gf” stands for, your ghost-friend’s happiness). But rather than helping her feel good about low grades, try this.

Step 1: Help her feel good not about the grades, but about herself. Prove to her (or, in the ghost’s case, “it”) that you value her as an intelligent person, regardless of what her report card suggests.

Step 2: Help her raise the grades. Bad grades really are—as the name implies—bad. They can close off opportunities and create a harder path through your teens and early twenties. Whatever the way to raise her grades—tutoring, getting more sleep, finding a reliably quiet workspace, dropping expendable time commitments—it’s better than just throwing up her hands (or ghostly mist-appendages) and accepting bad marks.

Q: how many kinds of monkeys are there, number-wise?

There are about 260 species of monkey—roughly half Old World, and half New World.

Also, just curious—was it really necessary to append “number-wise”? Were you worried about getting a non-numerical answer, such as “A plethora of monkeys!” or “Too many monkeys for us to invite them all to tea” or “Enough monkeys that the bards will never tire of singing their praise, not until the moon cracks in two and the stars tumble like hailstones to earth”?

Q: poem of quadratic formula using metaphor?

A: Challenge accepted!

When faced with equations quadratic,
solutions are quite automatic.
So strike up the band
for this formula grand,
whose widespread success is emphatic!

First, the quadratic must be
written so that we can see
ax2, bx,
and constant c next—
where zero’s the sum of the three.

Now, what we’re trying to do
is make this equation be true.
We want to deduce
which values to use.
In most cases, there will be two.

From negative b, we may add
(or subtract—either one isn’t bad)
square root of “b’s square
minus 4ac.” There!
Divide all by 2a, and be glad.

This formula’s quite a device!
(The cubic one isn’t as nice.)
Oh, what a machine,
so efficient and clean!
It tells us which x’s suffice.

Q: is it wrong to put an arrow under my final answer in math?

Mathematically wrong? Nope. Aesthetically wrong? Maybe. Ethically wrong? Quite likely—I mean, is this a gloating arrow? A “look at me, I’m so smart” arrow? A grandstanding, 15-yard-penalty-for-excessive-celebration kind of arrow? Never forget: math is a team game.

Q: am i the best teacher i can be?

A: Let me reassure you: The answer is almost certainly “no.” This might feel like the opposite of reassurance—“Do these pants make me look fat?” “Yeah, definitely!”—but hear me out.

Good teachers beat themselves up for not being great. Great teachers beat themselves up for not being excellent. Every lesson, you run out of time, or you bungle a question, or a bored student slips through the cracks of your attention. With 10,000 things to do per hour, you’ll never do them all immaculately. Gymnasts and SAT-takers may occasionally earn perfect scores, but teachers enjoy only two types of flawless, mistake-free days. They’re known as “Saturday” and “Sunday.”

Inevitably, you’re not a perfect teacher. So do you want this to be “the best you can be”? Or do you want to keep improving?

If this is the best you can muster, then you’ve peaked. You’d be looking forward to years in the classroom with no new insights, no breakthroughs, no gradual strengthening of your skills. It’d mean you showing up for work, day after day, helping to nurture growth and learning in others, even though your own growth had stagnated, and your own learning entered a deep freeze. If you were the best you can be, it’d mean you’d stop getting better.

So no, you’re not the best you can be. And that’s a good thing.

Q: ben orlin – bad at math?

A: Hmmph. Maybe I’ll start Googling your name plus phrases like “kind of incoherent” or “pretty lazy” or “doesn’t know all the state capitals.” See how you like it.

21 thoughts on “Mailbag #3: Quadratic Poems, Perfect Teachers, and the Controversial Equation of Ugly-Funny

  1. I love your poem. Can I steal it for my classroom? (And is it really stealing if I ask first?)

    1. Yeah, either that or they were looking for “What It Feels Like to Be Bad at Math,” which is one of the more-trafficked posts on the blog. But I find life is more entertaining if I take innocent queries as personal affronts.

  2. I am consistently entertained and inspired by your posts but the poem made me wish that we were best friends. Or that I had a daughter around your age. Or something equally creepy.

    1. Glad you liked the poem! I could’ve honored the “with metaphor” request more fully, but the limerick format is a bit of a straitjacket.

  3. Ben
    You’re best teacher I can be response is inspiring and I need to share it with a young colleague who is feeling beat up by student course evaluations.

    1. Glad I could help – and I hope your colleague recovers from the discouragement. It’s easy to forget how long a career is, and how much time we’ve all got.

  4. About putting an arrow under your answer? It helps the person marking, so they don’t accidentally mark the number you came up with about half-way through your working as your final answer and thereby mark you WRONG.
    Was home-educated. Mother hated and was not good at math, therefore marked math with exercise book in one hand and answer book in the other, looking for something in my handwriting that vaguely resembled the answer in the book. Once she marked my answer of one-and-three-eighths wrong. (Book said eleven-eighths…)

  5. Very good site you have here but I was wanting to know if you knew of any community forums that cover the
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  6. Have you seen Mathologer’s video about how the cubic formula really isn’t that scary? Mind you, I watched with interest but made no attempt to learn the formula…

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