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Tears From A Mathematician: A Quiet Call For A Loud Revolution

NCTM 2018, Washington, D.C.

Francis Su has a Ph.D in math from Harvard. That is not important right now.

Robert Berry is the new president of NCTM. That is not important right now.

While these are two highly acclaimed math educators, their credentials were beautifully nullified when Robert Berry offered some tissues to Francis Su — to wipe his clearly welling eyes towards the end of an already stunning keynote at NCTM 2018.

The slide that gripped the large ballroom crowd during this moment of quiet vulnerability and genuine emotion was one that called upon the entire math community to seek, comfort, and teach those students who are the most ignored by society — the Christophers. Christopher is an inmate in a prison that has been teaching himself high school mathematics, while also having written communication with Francis Su.

“When we think of who should learn mathematics, do we think of Christopher?

Francis Su

Christopher is the heart and soul of Francis Su’s keynote. While Su inspires us, Christopher inspires Su. That is where he wants our collective attention. He wants Christopher to inspire us — Su merely wants to be a humble vehicle for his authentic voice.

Every being cries out silently to be read differently.
― Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace

My vantage point for this moving keynote — which effortlessly transitioned into a most soulful sermon — was right at the front. Soon as Su started choking back his first tears, my reflection into my own career/accomplishments started.

And, they were getting rendered almost meaningless. Thankfully.

The only thing that mattered was had I done enough in my career to reach the most at-risk students in our communities — the poor, the marginalized, and the weak. Conditions manufactured and supported by an education system that is weighted by test scores and middle-class virtues filtered through competition.

The answer to that question was, generally, “no”. I could have done more. I should be doing more. We all should be doing more.

Su’s talk started with the virtue of “play” and ended, rather appropriately, with “love”. Over a year ago, I started being unintentionally aligned to Su’s human ideas of learning mathematics. I just added a little bit of punk attitude and called it “Humanity or Bust”.

I see a lot of math pedagogy on Twitter. I see some mathematical content. I almost see zero efforts to create a human trajectory for learning mathematics.

This is completely wrong. Focusing an inordinate amount on pedagogy is really bypassing Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and ignoring the students in our classes who are hungry, unloved, and neglected. If you are not devoting some part of your influential voice to Francis Su’s call for mathematical humanness, then your force in mathematics will eventually become frictional to the challenges that Su has put in front of us.

There was a reason NCTM chose him to give the closing keynote. It was for all of the math community to reflect deeply with a man who had the courage to share his breaking heart for all the students who have fallen through a generally unkind system. Students who would have benefited from a closer look into their defeated eyes and a simple squeeze of our hands to know they are loved and that we will fight for their survival in succeeding in mathematics — succeeding in life.

You can choose to not heed the words of Francis Su. But, by doing so, you do not get to champion the highest purpose for mathematics or create an alternate narrative for learning/teaching mathematics. Human Flourishing is for All. Sure, we might fail in reaching everyone. That is almost irrelevant.

The magic lies in the attempt. It is the ambition to show grace and humanity in reaching students who may not look like us, act like us, or talk like us that has to become tattooed in our collective consciousness.

Lesson plans, grades, flipped classrooms, etc. have little currency if we have little concern for the daily marginalization of the disenfranchised. If we don’t desire to make a human connection first, then introduce mathematics, then there will be little chance for the mathematics to survive within the capabilities that they all possess. Discrimination and stereotypes will help extinguish their beliefs about themselves. Their dreams will suffocate in an unjust and intolerant system, and then, like so many before them, quietly perish in a living body.

Francis Su. You have irreversibly raised the bar for teaching mathematics for all of us. We can either effortlessly walk underneath it, or we can try as we might to leap over it — with all the struggle and hard work that will lie ahead.

No matter. I see the destination. I will follow. I promise.




Reimagining the learning and teaching of mathematics

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Sunil Singh

Sunil Singh

Author, porous educator, audiophile.

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