A Conversation That Made My Day

Student #1: Look, Mr. Orlin, we all signed this petition!

Me: “We, the undersigned, would like to have Calculus all day, every day.” Hey, I’m glad you guys are enjoying the class.

Student #2: Can you change the schedule?

Me: Well, logistics aside, you guys only got two signatures on this.

Student #1: What are you talking about? Annie signed it too!

Me: Her name is in your handwriting. And she’s glaring at us.

Student #2: Look, it’s a petition. Take it or leave it.


Learning is a Fluorescent Light

Me: I know this new concept feels hard. But you know what it’s like turning on a fluorescent light? It flickers on, then goes dark, then goes bright for an instant, then goes dark again…

Student #1: Then bright?

Me: Yes, because…

Student #2: And then dark again?

Me: Right. And what I…

Student #1: And then bright!

Me: Yes, yes. And eventually the light comes on, but it’s slow, and there are these alternating moments of illumination and darkness. And that’s how it is understanding tough math. You feel like you get it, then you don’t. There’s a moment where it’s perfectly clear, then a moment where it all seems hopeless. Your understanding flickers at first, but eventually it becomes steady and bright.

Student #3: Oh! I get the analogy!

Me: See? It’ll come to…

Student #3: Wait! I lost the analogy.

Me: Oh… well, I can…

Student #4: Ohhh! Now I get it!

Me: Hmm. Are you just mocking my…?

Student #4: No! It’s gone!

One student starts flicking the light switch off and on, as others cry and shout:

All students: It’s all so clear! No – I’ll never get it! Wait – I see! No – I’ve lost it! Hold on – yes!

Me: I love you guys. Also hate.

Explain It To Me

A nearly-verbatim dialogue, in honor of one of the hardest-working students I’ve ever taught.

Student: Can you explain this problem to me?

Me: Sure, the idea is… Wait. You got it right.

Student: But I don’t feel like I did. I feel like I guessed.

Me: Well, explain how you got your answer.

(He proceeds to give a perfect explanation of the problem, justifying every detail.)

Me: See? You understand it.

Student: No, I just guessed.

Me: You “guessed” a flawless, conceptually motivated solution to the problem?

Student: Yes. You have to explain it to me.

Me: I mean… okay…

(I proceed to parrot back his explanation to him, virtually word for word.)

Student: Ah, thanks. That helps.

Following Recipes

Another pep talk with the class, another metaphor hijacked. This is a theme in my life.

Me: Remember, guys. Math isn’t just about following a recipe.

Student #1: It isn’t?

Me: No! Math is about logical reasoning. If I only wanted to teach you how to be detail-oriented and copy an example, we’d have a cooking class. You’d still learn to follow directions, and at the end we’d have a tasty cake, instead of some silly graph. Continue reading

The Graph Factory

I want my students to see graphing as a subtle, meaningful craft. But when I mess up and assign too many graphs for homework, they just sprint through them, cranking them out like cheap factory products. It goes something like this…

Me: How’s that graphing going?

Student: No time, man! I’ve got sixty logarithms that need to ship to customers tonight, and the assembly line’s been down for hours. I’m cranking out asymptotes by hand over here – I’ve got no time for your funny business!

Me: But why? What’s the point of these graphs?

Student: Hey, not my place to ask questions. I just hit my graph quotas, and try to make it home for dinner with the wife and kids.

Me: But you’re making mistakes. Sine curves don’t have sharp corners.

Student: So slap a warning label on ‘em, for all I care! Continue reading

The Anxieties of Hermit Crabs

With the Trigonometry class struggling, I attempt a pep talk. As usual, the students swiftly grasp my metaphor – and then hijack it.

Me: You’ve seen hermit crabs, right? They move from shell to shell throughout their lives. And it’s scary for them to leave their warm, safe shells behind. It makes them feel anxious and vulnerable, because their pink little crab bellies are exposed.

Student #1: Poor crabs!

Me: But they keep on moving. And do you know why?

Student #2: Because life is pain! Continue reading