Sit Your Fraction Axis Down! Math Cursing for Mathlicious Teachers

By Kim Thomas, 2016 Illinois Teacher of the Year

When you walk into my classroom, it’s like math is giving you a big hug. When someone asks me what subject I teach, I reply Mathlicious! because if I say math, most people want to rotate 10² + 80 degrees and run, much like my students when they first walk into my classroom.

I teach middle school students in Peoria, Illinois at the Peoria County Alternative School. My students are expelled or administratively placed, and like many, my kids are kids who have made mistakes. Their mistakes just got them placed in my school, and I try to prove that to them through a Mathlicious philosophy. As they walk in our room with negative parabolas on their face, I tell them, “Just give me 1/60 of an hour to rotate those negative parabolas into positive ones!” In our classroom, the only negative allowed is a negative integer.

My classroom is filled with diverse angles. Some angles are acute, while others are obtuse. It’s my job to figure them out and let them know that I care about them no matter what. Knowing the degree of each angle and my Mathlicious approach instills in my students that I always see them for their future potential, rather than past mistakes.

My students have already been through traumatic events, so it is my goal each day to ensure that the time they spend with me is one of the best fractions of their day. I am about to begin my 10 x 2 + 5 year of teaching. Those years have varied, but constant in all of them is my love for kids…and math. So I’ve learned after all this time that I need to engage them, care for them, and embrace some of their habits rather than try to change them to suit my needs.

Some of their habits are appropriate, while others are not. Cursing is a habit many of my students bring to school, and while it’s not exactly appropriate, let’s face it, most people want to curse when they come to math class. Instead of telling them to stop, we discuss why I don’t curse. I don’t have any rules posted; instead, we talk about things when they come up. My classroom management is about relationships, not rules. When it comes to cursing, I ask each one of my students to give me the name of someone they are not allowed to curse in front of. They tell me their mom or grandma or a respected neighbor. After everyone has given me a name, I ask them to put me on that list. When I tell them this, it isn’t solely about cursing. It is really about connecting me and our Mathlicious environment to what matters to them.

But even after this talk, I realize many of my students have days where they just need to let whatever is bothering them out, so we created math cursing. My students can math curse it up in our room. Math cursing goes something like this:

“Mrs. Thomas, what in the height is going on?”

“Let’s sit our median fraction axis in our seats.”

“This denominator pencil won’t sharpen.”

“That binomial is driving me crazy.”

It’s easy. They just substitute math words beginning with the same letter for their curse word of choice. Our room is always filled with positive parabolas as kids are using math words to get out their feelings, or just trying to break a bad habit. I get Mathbumps when I overhear them using math curse words while speaking to each other because they get to be themselves around me, and I get Mathlicious words in their heads.

It’s not about cursing, really. It’s about embracing our students’ habits as an example of how we can embrace them as people. When my kids use the desk as a drum or musical instrument, I apply what I call rhyMATHm into my daily routine. Instead of telling them to stop pounding on the desk, we incorporate the rhythms they make into the math lesson. I present my lesson to the beat, and kids answer or ask questions to the beat. Or if I have some students who can beatbox, we use our rhyMATHm skills to transform their favorite lyrics into math songs. This past year instead of “Juju on That Beat”, it was “Get Vertical on That Line”. Here is the first line:

Walked into the classroom students looking at me,

Math swag on and heels looking sweet.

I Love X Love the first time my students experience this. They are all “median fraction” surprised when I encourage pounding that creates a beat, probably because they are most often told how annoying it is. And for them, this can be a message that they are annoying. For my students who have piles of baggage weighing them down, such a message can destroy my relationship with them and their relationship to math. And, just between us, they get tired of it eventually and the pounding stops.

The bottom line is to find ways to let kids be themselves and bring out your and your content’s best self around them.

So excuse my sweet looking heels, I gotta get my Mathlicious swag on and go teach my median fraction axis off.

Mathematically Yours,

Kim Thomas

Kim Thomas is the 1000 x 2 + 16 Illinois Teacher of the Year and the author of Mathivate: The Mathlicious Way to Put a Positive Parabola on Everyone’s Face! Buy it here. And follow her on Twitter here.