Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Mathematician Writes

One aspect that I really enjoy about working where I do is that I do not have to abide by any pacing guide, computer-generated tests or quizzes, or "script" created by a corporate office somewhere out in Texas that does not know my students to the depth that I do.

Of course, one aspect that would make my  job a lot easier is having a pacing guide, generated assessments and "scripts" to follow when I am feeling lost about how to better show my students the real-life applications of the Binomial Theorem or the Quadratic Formula.

Nevertheless, it gives me the opportunity to guide students through written reports to seek out math applications for themselves. For the last two years I've assigned a "Wonders of the World" writing assignment where students chose an ancient "wonder" or one created during/after the Industrial Revolution. After the reports are turned in, extra-credit posters and videos presented, we watch an episode or two of "Engineering an Empire," an amazing series from The History Channel.

 "The Aztecs"

Before my favorite video rental place in Berkeley closed down (RIP Reel) I'd get most of my videos or DVDs there to show my students. It was independent and had a plethora of obscure videos, with such subgenres as "Man vs. Shark" and showcased more than twenty great actors/actresses/directors' work with their own shelf of achievements.

My only critique was that their video collection was missing the original "Sleuth" starring Michael Caine and Lawrence Olivier and written by Anthony Shaffer. I still have yet to see the 2007 remake from Kenneth Branagh, which WAS available at Reel. I'm curious how well Jude Law pulled off Caine's original role as the young, good-lookin' guy.

Humboldt County folk would recognize this store as a variation of Figuredo's, where I first checked out so many foreign and independent videos that my teeny weeny middle-school brain could hardly process. There I was first exposed to so many cinema greats: Almodovar, "El Topo," and "But I'm A Cheerleader." Those were the days I coveted Roger Ebert's job.

Tragedy struck in 2000 or 2001 when a kitchen fire from an adjacent Mexican restaurant spread to Figuredo's in McKinleyville and destroyed decades of work to build such a unique video collection. I remember mourning the loss for weeks, having to make the commute to Arcata if I desired the same hard-to-find titles. That Mexican restaurant is where I had my first chile relleno combination plate. It's never been the same.

But let me return to my original point: writing essays in math class? Yessiree, it is indeed one of the finer points of the scriptless classes I teach. It's a great way for writers to explore mathematical applications and for mathematicians to explore writing applications.

One of the best classes I took in college was Writing for Science, which combined my love of the written word with my passion for empirical knowledge. I brag to my students that I won second-place in an essay contest not for the self-congratulation, but to show them that all the logic and mathematical lingo that I thrust upon them in each 55-minute session can be used to further one's own talking points. That essay writing, just like mathematics, needs to follow a formula for success. Sometimes the writing will go off on tangents, sometimes it will be more rigid, and sometimes it will look and feel counterintuitive. But regardless the end result is clear, concise, and unique.

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