Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Excitement in mathematics classrooms

Poems from three women illustrate a range of emotional content in the mathematics classroom: Rita Dove's "Geometry" captures the excitement of a new mathematical discovery.  Sue VanHattum's "Desire in a Math Class" tells of undercurrents of emotion beneath the surface in a formal classroom setting.  Marion Deutsche Cohen's untitled poem [I stand up there and dance] offers a glimpse of what may go on in a teacher's mind as she performs for her class. 

   Geometry     by Rita Dove

   I prove a theorem and the house expands:
   the windows jerk free to hover near the ceiling,
   the ceiling floats away with a sigh.

   As the walls clear themselves of everything
   but transparency, the scent of carnations
   leaves with them. I am out in the open

   and above the windows have hinged into butterflies,
   sunlight glinting where they've intersected.
   They are going to some point true and unproven.

   Desire in a Math Class     by Sue VanHattum

   My lover
   Sat in the back of my classroom.
   “My friend, who’s visiting from New York,
   Wanted to join us today,” I say to the class.

   Her visit has distracted me
   From my usual preparations,
   But I know this stuff, and these students,
   And her presence electrifies me.

   My hands shape ideas more fully,
   My eyes look into students’ more carefully.
   (Avoiding hers, and too much desire?)
   The calculus is alive.
   I ask, “Why do we set this equal to zero?”
   Rebecca, usually shy, tells us,
  “To find the highest point, where the slope is zero...”
   And finishes with her hands shaping the idea.

   After class is over and students are gone
   She tells me how good it was to watch.
   She, the playwright, saw drama in my classroom.
   “They so wanted to get it.”
   At first I am shocked by how good I was,
   Much better than usual.
   Then I blush, hoping my students
   Never know quite why...

   [I stand up there and dance]     by Marion Cohen

   I stand up there and dance
   the dance of the unsteady.
   I sway, I swirl.
   I spin a semi-circle
   afraid of making a mistake and spinning a full circle.
   Yes, afraid of integrating from zero to two pi instead of just pi.

   Oh, teaching is a dance.
   A fast dance.
   The dance danced by the vibrating string.
   The dance danced by any Dirichlet f over all its sines and cosines.
   Yes, teaching is all dances.
   It doesn't miss a step.

   I stand up there and wobble
   like dark in the hall.
   I stand up there and totter
   like a chandelier in a storm.
   I'm the fancy dancer, the frantic dancer
   the answer dancer, the cancer dancer.

   On, Dancer! On, Prancer! On Chancer!

   Yes, teaching is some dance.
   It goes on and on.
     . . .
About the poets:
Rita Dove is a professor of English at the University of Virgina; she served as Poet Laureate of the United States during 1993-95. "Geometry" appeared in The Yellow House on the Corner (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1980).   Sue VanHattum writes an entertaining and useful blog (Math Mama Writes...)--full of  ideas for teaching mathematics--and maintains a second blog (And All the Rest) in which "Desire in a Math Class" may be found.  Marion Deutsche Cohen is a writer and mathematician who lives in Philadelphia and teaches at Arcadia University.  The lines above are the the first part of a longer poem about the excitement of teaching and are found in her collection of math-related poems, Crossing the Equal Sign (Plain View Press, 2007).

1 comment:

  1. Great little collection of poems on the subject of math and teaching.

    David Perrings