The Problem with Math is English

There have been several separate occasions in my math classes this semester where a student has asked me a question about a vocabulary word and I simply just didn’t know the answer.  I took 3 years of Latin in high school and I was an English teacher at one point, so I generally can guess the meaning of a word from the root word.  However, some words just have me stumped.   My new ‘go to’ tool in class is dictionary.com.  Let me give you a few examples of some words that I have looked up during class this semester.

Linear Algebra

In linear algebra, we were talking about inverse matrices and a student asked me what it means to be an inverse.  I explained to him that it means that the inverse matrix, if it exists, is the matrix that when multiplied by the original matrix yields the identity matrix.  Although that explained what the inverse is mathematically speaking, that really didn’t give any insight into why we call it an inverse matrix.  It turns out that the word inverse comes from the Latin word meaning ‘to turn upside down or inside out.’  So, conceptually, the inverse matrix can actually be thought of as the matrix that is used to turn a matrix inside out in order to get the identity matrix.  I thought that this was a very interesting way to think about inverse matrices.

Math for Elementary Teachers

In my math for elementary teachers class, we were talking about subtracting whole numbers.  When I learned about subtraction, I was taught that the first number in the subtraction problem is called the minuend, the second number is called the subtrahend, and the result is the difference.  Apparently, minuend and subtrahend are not words that are taught to most students these days, or they have simply forgotten the terms over the years.  Anyway, during class, a student asked me why we use the words minuend and subtrahend.  We looked it up on dictionary.com, and it turns out that subtrahend comes from the Latin word meaning ‘to be subtracted from another number’ and minuend comes from the Latin word meaning ‘to be diminished or made smaller.’  So, after looking at the definitions of the words together in class, I feel as if my students got a better understanding for why it is so important to teach children the proper math vocabulary.

Everyday Math (Liberal Arts Math)

In my everyday math class, we were talking about discrete and continuous random variables.  A student asked me why I was defining a discrete random variable as being a random variable that as one that can only take on countable values.  The student said that it was confusing because discrete generally means to do something carefully or quietly.  I immediately brought up dictionary.com on the computer and showed the class that the words discrete and discreet are two different words.  The majority of the class was shocked and several students even mentioned that these types of problems with the English language aren’t even being addressed in the English classes that they are taking this semester.  I’m not an English teacher, but I would think that if students don’t know some basic vocabulary words, they aren’t going to be turning out very high quality papers for their classes, either.

In summary, my whole point is that using a tool as simple as dictionary.com during my classes has helped spark some discussion in my classes and has helped to bring a new perspective to some of the mathematical vocabulary that is used in the courses.

Here’s a recap of the links that I’ve posted on Twitter over the past week or so:

1.  A friend told me that she used this Divisibility Rocks game from over at The Utah Education Network with her Developmental Math students and that it worked really well.  It turns out that they have plenty of other great lesson plans as well.

2.  Z-Type is a very intense typing game.  It turns out that as a Math Instructor, I do have to teach typing, computer, and writing skills as well.  For example:  One student told me just today that he couldn’t write a paper for my class about an African American Mathematician because he hadn’t had an English class yet.

3.  NightMare is an example of a 25-word story.  I’m considering having my students write their own 25 word stories about a concept in mathematics.  This would be good introductory video to show to students, though, because it is absolutely hilarious!  It’s one of the best laughs that I have had in a really, really long time.

4.  100 Ideas for Data Projector and Document Camera – Well, yeah, these ideas really are for my friends who still want to teach like they’re still in the 19th century.  And even if you’re already using the document camera, I’m sure that you can’t think of 100 ideas.  Well, maybe you can.

5.  Times Attack is an awesome multiplication game that takes over the top spot for me as my favorite multiplication game ever!  And let me tell you, I learned so much from the hour I played this game just about the world of video games.  I was just as frustrated with figuring out how to navigate as I am sure a student would be with doing the multiplication.

6.  Math Illustrations is a new program that I just found out about for drawing mathematical figures that I really think that you will like once you watch the tutorial video on this page.  It is so great that I am really considering the \$59 fee to buy this program because I think it would make my life a lot easier in the long run.  And the Word Drawing tools suck, especially for number lines.

7.  NCTM Black History Month Resources – It’s Black History Month and I am trying to incorporate some lessons into my curriculum.  I found these resources to be extremely helpful.  I am even going to check the recommended book out from my library to read over the next month or so.  I checked already and it is indeed one of the books that they have!

8.  E-Learning Tools for Schools and Education is a Mindomo Mind Map with hundreds of wonderful resources for E-learning.  There are a lot of tools that I thought were regrettably left off the list as well.  However, I know that there are plenty of resources on the list that I have yet to explore.  I hope that you have time to explore some of them as well and to find what will work best for you.

9.  Math Wordles – I have talked about Wordles on this site plenty of times in the past and this activity just reminded me of the fact that there are so many things that can be done with a Wordle.  My plan is to develop a modified version of this activity in the near future to use with one of my classes.  As described, I think this could be a great activity for Math Anxiety toward the beginning of a semester.

10.  On-line LaTeX Equation Editor – I think LaTeX is so easy for entering equations, and I especially love how in the newer versions of Word I can type LaTeX code directly into Equation Editor.  However, even that bridge until the next time I can use LaTeX is not enough.  I can see this on-line tool being a great use to some people.

11.  TED Talks I’ve ‘liked’ over the past week:

Math Vocabulary Becomes Art

I was researching the best way to use maps to introduce the topic of ordered pairs to a beginning algebra class, when I stumbled upon something totally different, and totally unique:  A website called Wordle that takes text and turns it into JAVA created art.  I actually threw the RSS feed for this website into their art generator (a wonderful option, by the way), and the results are below.  Immediately, my wheels started spinning about how to use this in a math class, and viola!  The nice people who write the Ed Tech 4 Math Blog Technology & Software For Teaching Math already have a nice post on how Math Vocabulary Becomes Art.  As you can see from my attachments, Wordle can also provide word counts, which could lead to a lot of discussion about word frequencies, etc.  Enjoy!  This also means that a future post is still coming about using mapping in the classroom.

Wordle word counts.pdf