On middle school math and picking favorites

Pi, Code Camp and other irrational things

A few weeks ago my 13-year-old niece, Hannah, was part of Code Camp, a week-long camp where middle school students, and teachers, got to spend their time learning different coding languages for web design, app development, gaming, art, and robotics.  As great as the coding components were, one of her favorite activities was ‘Brain Jam’, a 45-minute block where campers engaged in a variety of code-esq tasks.  I asked her why she liked this block so much (expecting an answer that had to do with collaboration, innovation, computational thinking, or any of those other 21st century buzz words that we educators love so much), but she simply said, “It’s cool.”

on middle school math and picking favorites

Well, not quite the astute answer I was anticipating from a developing html expert, and being a former middle school teacher I certainly couldn’t let her terseness go.  So I dug a little deeper with a comparable crafty response, “So…why is it cool?”

Apparently I hadn’t learned my lesson the first time, and I again expected an articulate explanation that included words like information fluency and critical thinking. “Well, I’m in group #4, and 4 is my favorite number.”

Seriously? That was it?

I watched the sweat from camp facilitators as they poured their hearts and souls into planning, creating, and executing the most hands-on, engaging brain jam activities possible for 80 code campers, and she thought it was cool because she was in group #4, which happened to be her favorite number?

Remember your (square) roots

Okay, I thought. Think about it… back to my middle school self.  I think I had orange and black braces elastics.  I also had a favorite color, song, food, word, and yes, number; 26.  I had a baseball idol thing for Wade Boggs.  But as my interests changed, so did my favorites, and fast forward to my teaching days and I will quickly tell you that my favorite number was (is!) Pi.  Oh so many teaching lessons, opportunities, and fun facts revolve around Pi; and I’m not alone, just look here. Pi Day was a favorite in my classes; we went all out.

on middle school math and picking favoritesPies, pizzas, songs, skits, tattoos, you name it, I Pi-ed it.  And mid-summer, my students were sure to get the Happy Pi Approximation Day email on the 22nd of July. Look again at this infographic; it reads, “Pi can never be fully known.”  Wow.  Can NEVER be fully known?!  There aren’t too many things that deserve such a bold statement, and this awesome number of Pi does just that.

The direction the conversations take can never be fully known

Of course I asked Hannah why then was 4 her favorite number.  This time I was ready for the anticipated, ‘well it is’ response.  Instead I got, “All lists of numbers lead back to four. Think about it Aunt Meredith. 25, 10, 3, 5, 4.  Or 123, 21, 9, 4.”  It took me a bit to figure out this riddle, but the best part was that she had a pretty cool reason why 4 was her favorite.

Do you have a favorite number?  Do your students have favorite numbers?  Why are they your/their favorites?  You might just be surprised to hear the answers.  And if the opportunity presents, celebrate those numbers – I recommend with some Pi.

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Meredith Swallow

Meredith Swallow

Research Associate and Professional Development Coordinator at Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education
Meredith Swallow is in her fourth year as a doctoral student at UVM, and is working with the Tarrant Institute as a Research Associate and Professional Development Coordinator. As a former middle- and high-school math teacher, Meredith facilitated environments of engaged, active learning, by supporting the connection of knowledge through interaction, understanding, and meaning. Her research focuses on the intersection of educational technology, content knowledge, and pedagogy, and how that supports twenty-first century educational goals and outcomes. She strives to model effective technology integration across multiple disciplines by recognizing diverse learning needs and specific school and teacher contexts. When not studying or engaging in research, Meredith enjoys her time in the outdoors hiking with her trusted sidekick Jack the Dog.
Meredith Swallow

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