Math in the Real World

Math teachers often tell students they need to know math so they can use it in the “real world,” whatever that means. Well, the real world is here, and math isn’t offering me much help.

I started teaching online this week and it’s a mess. I’m stressed and anxious about the pandemic. I keep talking with mute on. I screw up breakout rooms in Zoom. I have no idea how to help students visualize volumes of solids of rotation over the internet without resorting to a Youtube video. I hate assigning Youtube videos. The little things are getting a little better, but I’m not sure graphing trig functions is what students need right now. The more I read about the pandemic the more pessimistic I feel. And I have a stable job, financial security, and I live in a rural area where social distancing can involve lots of fresh air. Lots of folks are doing worse.

I asked my students earlier this week what questions they had about COVID-19, and whether they’d like to learn a bit about it in math class. Their questions were excellent and the answer was almost unanimously yes. I felt weird teaching about the virus, like a politician using a crisis to score points for a pet cause. “Math in the real world, kids. This is why you should pay attention in class.” It’s affecting real people, it’s not some word problem about ferris wheels or watermelons.

Here’s the thing. The data is incomplete and there’s a ton of uncertainty. Math can’t tell us what’s going to happen. The first thing I tried to do — and I suck at this, but I’m trying to get better — was to be transparent about how I’m feeling. I feel scared and anxious, and that feels like a normal response to the crisis. I’m not sure it was the right thing to say, but being stoic feels dishonest and teaches students that emotions don’t have a place in confronting the virus. Scared doesn’t mean hopeless.

A lot of students asked about the meaning of “flattening the curve.” I used these visualizations from the Washington Post to help students understand different possibilities, and this data from Our World in Data to look at the difference between our growth rate and, for instance, South Korea’s. The data might not be optimistic, but I want students to feel a sense of agency in understanding how their actions matter. I also wanted them to know what to look for if our response is successful. I emphasized that the data is incomplete and the models are just guesses; we don’t know.

Math isn’t the hero of this story. But I do believe that knowledge is power, and I hope that knowing a bit more about what is happening and how their actions matter will help students find their way through the pandemic. And I hope that being transparent in how I feel can help to model the type of emotional vulnerability that I think is essential to taking care of each other in hard times.

I did this with a lot of trepidation. It was especially hard online, without a good way to read students’ responses. But I’m happy that my students are a bit more informed, and had some of their questions answered.

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