I was thinking…about humanity

April 12, 2017 at 2:50 am 4 comments

I have been home from San Antonio for three days now and I can’t stop thinking about the talk of humanity and humane-ness that I heard from speakers.

I first felt humanity creeping into the conversation about mathematics while sitting in #Shadowcon17 listening to  (minute 52:00) talk about mathematical anthropology. Defined as ” what makes us human,” anthropology is commonly the study of long-dead civilizations, relying only on the artifacts that are left behind. In a sense,ShadowCon3 other artifacts left behind in Geoff’s model of anthropology are worksheets, percentage grades, and grades derived from an arithmetic mean, where you never free yourself from the burden of an early bad grade. But Geoff asks us to focus on artifacts that are contained in the portfolio-like folder that he visited with Cassandra, the high school sophomore who shared her mathematical journey with him. I can come up with a thousand reasons to keep all of those other artifacts, but Geoff made the case that each of those misses the humanity of students.

After Geoff spoke I was better prepared to understand the relevance of Cathy Yenca’s talk about Students Who Hide (minute 0:00). Captured well by @MrsKemper‘s sketches, Cathy  describes the new (and not new) teachers’ feelings about students’ questions about mathematics. Indifferent? Insulted? Inspired? Where are you? I remember making the journey from indifferent to insulted and finally to inspired by students’ questions and all the difference it made in my own practice. Although I admit that questions about attendance, homework, due dates, and schedules still irritate me (Is that another ?).  To admit that students can insult you or that they can inspire you with their questions about mathematics is to make mathematics human.

shared her realization that teachers of other subjects more often have the opportunity to learn about their students’ values through the content they teach: they learn about their students’ humanity. Why don’t mathematics teachers have the same opportunity? Where is the mathematical heart – the explicit effort to humanize math. Where has this been all along?

Humanizing mathematics …

I have books on my shelf that hint at this idea. Mathematics are People, Too; A Place for Zero; Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking; Designing Tessellations: The Secrets of Interlocking Patterns. But  goes farther. The mathematical heart captures the democratization of mathematics, students’ empowerment to be human and to make and to explore conjectures of their own. Just like books can take you on a self-directed journey, mathematics can also create a sense of agency.   (minute 37:00) suggests that this agency can be found in math play.


Bears play. Puppies play. Children play. And mathematicians play. What can be more human than that, @kassiaowedekindPerhaps all of the connections that we struggle to make between mathematics and the arts, literature, and other human endeavors is the result of the desire to humanize mathematics, to reclaim it from its solitary existence in the intellectual field.

Finally I reviewed the storification of the NCSM Ignite session to see if I could find more examples thaNCSM Ignitet express the importance of humanity in mathematics and to see a more humane approach to learning and teaching emerge. Consider the humanity in these talks, this time in tweets.

How much white space on the page do you give for student thinking? bstockus MathEdLeaders #NCSM17

CindyCliche1 children with early math skills overcome problems more easily. Good news: children are natural problem solvers #NCSM17

We can’t assume that “mathematically proficient students” means “mathematically perfect students.” MrsNewell22 #NCSM17 pic.twitter.com/p8gg7uzR1v

Precise claims can be expressed in imperfect language . (Moschovitz) MrsNewell22 MathEdLeaders #NCSM17

All means All for teachers too – building trust to inspire professional learning with srendon2 at #NCSM17 #ignite 🔥 pic.twitter.com/twmCuw1VZY

None of that mattered. he saw a living being who could do mathematics. #ncsm17 TLAMath

Math is the most guilty of telling children their ideas are not worthwhile MFAnnie #NCSM17

Isn’t that the work we want in the classroom? Children listening to each other MFAnnie #NCSM17

Do whatever the hell you want in class…but listen to your student’s ideas. @MFAnnie #NCSM17


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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Suzanne Alejandre  |  April 17, 2017 at 3:36 pm

    I love how you quote from ShadowCon and the NCSM Igniters! And I’m happy to know that the Storify helped bring out those messages of humanity/humaneness.

    Some time this year (or end of last?) I remember someone tweeting asking about a New Year’s resolutions or a focus for this school year or something like that. Although I can’t remember exactly what prompted my response, I do remember what I wrote — to be kind.

    I am very lucky to be in a position where being kind is an important part of my job. For me being kind means,

    * trying to organize things like Ignite events and Networking Lounge presentations that help bring out the best in people
    * Ignite events are both stressful but (once finished) rewarding and my role is to keep folks informed and help them feel supported, giving that extra human touch and confidence that they’ll do great
    * answering any question that comes my way and helping the questioner feel that their question is valued (Teacher2Teacher, PCMI, Problems of the Week, Online Courses, and the list goes on…)

    I left the classroom to join the Math Forum staff full time on June 26, 2000 and in the almost 17 years that I’ve worked here I’ve been asked “how would you characterize the Math Forum.” My reply didn’t take too long to formulate since I had been a Math Forum groupie for 5 years before joining the staff. I describe the Math Forum as:

    * valuing each person for what they are
    * helping each person move from where they are to where the want to be next

    Your descriptions of talk in San Antonio that touched on “humanity” and “humane-ness” struck a happy chord with me. I wish we lived in a world where that was the order of the day. I think that it often isn’t but when we support each other as much as we can to keep “humanity” and “humane-ness” as a cornerstone of what we do, we all (students, teachers, parents) are more likely to

    * find value in others
    * help each other progress on their chosen path of learning


    • 2. kmorrowleong  |  April 21, 2017 at 2:00 am

      I think mathematics could use a lot more humanity. I’m glad you are all there to keep up the good fight.

  • 3. kmorrowleong  |  April 21, 2017 at 4:58 am

    To follow up, I just read this reflection on the NCTM conference and the main take away was JOY. Doesn’t this reflect our humanity as well?

  • […] Check out another great NCTM reflection from Kim Morrow Leong here. […]


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