Thursday, December 25, 2014

Math Humbug

I'm not a huge fan of the Christmas season.

I have nothing really against Christmas itself, but I find the season unsettling.

It isn't really the month and a half long orgy of consumerism.  It's not really the fact that the radio becomes unlistenable starting in mid-November.

It isn't even the irony of the fact that people who mock my enjoyment of science fiction and fantasy for 11 months out of the year have no problem spouting the virtues of a time-bending geriatric who constantly watches the deeds of small children under the auspices of knowing which ones are naughty or nice.

What I find incredibly upsetting is the way that people who don't jump into "the Christmas spirit" with both feet like a free-runner with a Go-Pro strapped to his head in search of YouTube stardom are looked down upon as though they are mental patients.

"You don't LOVE Christmas??  Are you on medication?" they say with lips curled back in a rictus of disgust.

I like Christmas.  I enjoy the feeling of being with friends and family.  I enjoy seeing faces light up when they open gifts.  I even enjoy classy Christmas carols (in moderation).

What I do NOT like is being made to feel like an outcast for not wanting that for the entire month of December.

I enjoy this.
No thanks, you have enough Christmas spirit for all of us...

I have found that the majority of the people who cause me to throw up my Scrooge-wall are doing so by accident.  I don't TRY to rain on their parade, but it always ends up coming off that way.

Inevitably, they say something like "why can't you just let us enjoy this season?" and I reply (usually in my head) with something like "why can't you just keep your enjoyment to yourself."

It always makes me think of someone happy that it's their birthday and they are confused as to why you don't care.  Except it's not their birthday, it's someone else's birthday and is celebrated in a completely different month then their actual birthday.

While I was driving back from another excellent Christmas celebration with my wife's family, I was thinking about how much they enjoy the season.  Christmas was never my holiday, but they have welcomed me into their home and their traditions in a way that made me feel as though I could actually enjoy it.  It wasn't until I started spending Christmas with them that I started to understand that there was a way to celebrate Christmas without making people feel bad for not.

I then thought about my students.  The way that the majority of society makes me feel about Christmas is often the way that teachers make students feel about school in general and their subject in particular.

We are so INTO our content areas.  We love math, or science, or social studies and we almost take it personally when our students don't.

"Why can't you just see how cool this math is??"
"Why can't you just see that I don't care about this math?"

When a student isn't passionate about my content area, I tend to think that there is something wrong with them.  I think it's so fascinating that I don't understand how they couldn't!

But they don't.

When Scrooge is taken on his journey by the three spirits of Christmas, each spirit plays a very specific role.
"I was a very lonely child, spirit."

The Ghost of Christmas Past shows him how he got to where he is.  This spirit gives him a feeling of melancholy for missed opportunities.

The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come shows Scrooge where he will be if he doesn't change his ways.  It fills him with dread and sadness.  This spirit is the embodiment of fear.

I think that educators all too often rely on this spirit when it comes to their classroom.

"If you don't learn this material, YOU WILL FAIL!!!"

We hope that the fear of failure will motivate students to change their ways, much the way that the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come motivated Scrooge.

But in the majority of the productions of A Christmas Carol that I have seen, Scrooge has already changed his mind by the time the threat comes down.  The spirit who has changed his mind is the Ghost of Christmas Present.

As someone who has never really been into Christmas and often sympathized with Scrooge, this was the spirit that always resonated the most with me.  In all of the Christmas movies and shows that I've seen, this is the scene that I love the most:

I find myself singing this song for days and smiling without realizing it.

When it comes to my class, I want to be the Ghost of Classroom Present.  I don't want to remind my students of their shortcomings and I don't want to scare them with consequences.  I want to help them instead to see the beauty and joy of what's happening all around them.  I want to help them to open their eyes to see what they're missing and how to enjoy it.

We can't force them to love our subjects. All we can do is show them why WE do and not make them feel badly for not feeling the same.

What School Spirit are you?

Which one do you want to be?

Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!


  1. I take the blame for my student's "meh" attitude towards math. Of course I will share that blame with all the teachers they had before me. I just emailed a graph I made and asked why the angle at the blue point is always a right angle. One emailed back that he had searched it and even gave me the theorem name. I emailed back that I don't want someone else's ideas, I wanted HIS ideas.

  2. It's an interesting connection, joy for a holiday compared to joy for a subject. As someone else who really isn't "into" all of the Christmas stuff - aside from, as you say, the family aspect - I get it. It's also "forced" upon us the same way math can be "forced" on people as a compulsory subject.

    One thing about the ghosts though. While I agree that the Present is important (indeed, it's the thing I've been told to focus on more in my counselling sessions), it is fleeting. It becomes the Past. We need not look back on that Present with regret for missed opportunities - indeed, as in the Star Trek TNG episode "Tapestry", we may end up with regrets regardless. We can look back on accomplishments with pride (or at least insight) instead. We never did see how Scrooge and his partner built up a successful company - if they had not done so, would he be penniless, and not in a position to help people? The ghost was deliberately focussing on the negative.

    Similarly, if there are no future consequences, we might change for a day, or a week, but we tend to revert back to our old habits. Consequences themselves need not be bad either... it doesn't need to be about fear. Again, like in Scrooge's past, that's simply what the ghost was going for. In order to bring about change, you need to know a bit about where you've been and where you're going - the question is what lens you use.

    Which School Spirit am I? I respond the same way Doolittle did in "Pygmalion" when asked if he was an honest man, or a rogue: "A little bit of both."


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