Infinitely Many Letters Or Mathematician Mondays

Yesterday I was reviewing variables with my algebra students and talking about how we can use any letter to represent a variable, and how mathematicians have to start using Greek letters because the English alphabet isn’t sufficient. In response, one of my students asked an AMAZING question:

“Why are there infinitely many numbers but not infinitely many letters?”

I love this question a LOT and I said as much to the class. I asked if anyone had any ideas.

I didn’t get a lot of responses. In a perfect world I would just let the class sit and think about that for 10 minutes. Maybe I should have in our imperfect world, I don’t know. Let them think and ask questions like:

“What are letters for?”

“How many letters do we need?”

“Do we have enough letters for that need?”

And so on. But I didn’t. Instead I talked for a few minutes about Jorge Luis Borge’s Library of Babel. I couldn’t remember Mr. Borge’s name but I had remembered reading about the book and my student’s question sparked my memory. I don’t really have a lesson to take away from this or a point to share, I was just so excited by the question and the chance to talk to my students about thought experiments like that.

Okay so maybe I do. One of my goals for this class, which is a foundations of algebra class, is to expose them to more than they would normally see as “tracked” students of mathematics. Of course, we will still discuss and learn all of the required learning standards, but I am trying to build some extra experiences to help them see math for what it is and not what they have experienced.

Part of my plan for this is Mathematician Mondays.

(Note: I had always planned to incorporate biographies and history of math into my high school math classes, but the current flavor and trajectory of the Mathematician Mondays vision I am about to describe is largely inspired by Annie Perkins’s More Than Just White Dudes and I would be remiss not to mention her here.)

Every Monday we will look at a very short biography of a famous or notable mathematician. Yesterday I introduced them to Dr. Elbert Cox, the first African-American to receive a Ph.D. in Mathematics not just in America, but in the entire world.

I chose Dr. Cox as the first mathematician for Mathematician Mondays because I also want to expose my students (who are mostly not white males) to mathematicians who were not those things either. Of course, I will tell them about my D.O.G.s, my Dead Old White Guys as well–everyone should learn about Euler and Gauss and Leibniz, but I would like for them to have others to look up to in addition. Since my students are more than just white dudes then so should be the biographies we examine in class be.

I also had the students look at a sample of Dr. Cox’s work. I asked them what they saw more of in the paper: equations or words. The students said they saw both but more of the words. I talked to them about how that is what math looks like. It’s not all equations but explanations and communication of ideas. There are still formulas and numbers sometimes, but not always and not all of it. This fit very nicely with my goal of exposing students to more of what math really is. I feel this is especially important for students who rarely have positive experiences in mathematics.

Now, did I completely blow away my students with that bio yesterday? No, of course not. I wasn’t planning for that. Biographies are biographies. A lot of students find them un-interesting. And if you’ve ever seen me discuss politics on Twitter you know I’m not Mr. Woke and that’s not who I’m trying to be because it wouldn’t be genuine.

I’m trying to build a certain classroom culture here. I think that happens slowly over many small experiences and messages.

I plan to have them all do an extended written biography on mathematicians and then they will do a one slide presentation on a Monday. To make it fair, everyone will have the same due date where they submit everything. Then after that I will schedule presentations for approved and completed biographies. I’m looking forward to seeing who the students choose and what conversations come about because of Mathematician Monday.




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