Tessellations are not boring.

work by M.C. Escher

Checking on a math and literacy project in a colleague’s classroom, and a third grade boy who is wicked smart told me smugly that he found tessellations boring. He had read about them in Penrose the Mathematical Cat by Theoni Pappas. I use this book in an integrated math and literacy project I created. Making his own tessellation was a possible activity he could do: create it, design it, color it, but nope, Boring. So boring in fact, he’d accept a “3” out of “4” for his entire project happily and escape back into his fantasy novel. Nine years old and just not worth his time.

I worked with him a bit on the idea but he wasn’t having it. So I nodded and moved on but I admit I was fuming inside. As most teachers do, I hate the word boring. “This is boring” from the students. “My child is bored” from the parents. It becomes a mantra from the student to not engage. Frustration from the parent who just doesn’t know what to do with their smart but unmotivated kid.

I’m not stupid. Some options, ok sometimes many, given to students are boring. Another worksheet on a topic they already know? Time wasting nonsense.  Test preparation lessons that some students don’t need? Numbingly dull.  Writing yet another response to every single book they’ve read? Gross. It would make me want to stop reading.

But an opportunity to create and design a tessellation? Not even close.

An hour later, I went back to his classroom and placed the largest coffee table version of M.C. Escher’s work on that child’s desk. It covered his desk. I said, “Look closely at this work by a mathematician and artist, and tell me that tessellations are boring. And you might find impossible figures as well. Maybe even a fractal or two or several dozen.” Smugly, I walked away.

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M.C. Escher

Sometimes sparking children’s interest can feel like you’re looping an impossible loop. But leading them down staircases that take them to upside down rooms might shake them out of their need to escape or their lack of looking at something a little more closely to find fascination there. Perhaps motivate them to start with a square, cut a crazy shaped piece out of one side, slide it across, tape it. Viola! A template to tessellate. A shape that can now be a fish or a bird or a man on a horse. Moving across the plane with no spaces in between.

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All time favorite gif

All time favorite gif

Teachers. at work.

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“I Am Asian American” feature

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illus. by James Yang

One of my favorite magazines, Teaching Tolerance, has published my article in their  inaugural digital magazine (Summer 2013). Check it out: Teaching Tolerance.

This article was inspired by reading about the prevalence of bullying with Asian-American students. The more I explored the topic the more I learned about this very fast growing population in the U.S.

First, lumping together people from over 48 different cultural groups into one melting pot of “Asian” is a huge mistake. Each sub-group has its own distinct language, customs, religions, and issues. A student from Korea will have completely different experiences and needs than a student from Cambodia, for instance. A child of Chinese immigrants might live in a U.S. Chinatown in a large city and interact with mostly other Mandarin speakers. A refugee student from Myanmar (Burma) might arrive in the U.S. with no English skills, no money, and no parents. Or, a third generation Japanese-American student might not speak any Japanese.

And then, there are the myths and misconceptions, including

  • model minority – good in math, bad in sports, nerdy and smart – and don’t need academic help
  • forever foreign – assuming all are immigrants, when in fact, many have been in the U.S. for many generations and may not speak their ancestral language

As the first immigrants from Japan arrived in California to work on farms and the fishing industry, and were soon followed by Chinese seeking gold and working in the railroads, they were beset with discrimination and prejudice.  Banding together for protection, the first “Chinatowns” were created, allowing these early immigrants to create their own banks, restaurants, and businesses. Along the west coast, these groups of people were often forcibly removed from their homes, their businesses and homes destroyed, and laws were enacted to keep them from marrying or bringing members of their families over from original countries.

As teachers, we tend to not know much about the history of people from Asian countries and little is taught in our curriculum. Exposure to well-written books can help combat this lack of information. “Coolies” by Yin is an excellent picture book describing early railroad workers from China. Allen Say has written and illustrated many books about the Japanese-American experience, including “Grandfather’s Journey.”  Many other titles abound.

I delved into this topic when I read that the number of Asian-American students in our country has increased dramatically and sadly, those who are bullied has increased as well. This bullying happens mostly in the classrooms. This tells me the bullying is more subtle so as not to attract a teacher’s attention. Words, gestures, and exclusion can be damaging to anybody’s self-esteem. As teachers, we need to be aware that this is happening in our classrooms. We also need to approach each student as unique. Stereotypes are just that and until we know the kids we teach, we are not addressing their needs. I was enlightened by all I learned researching this article. I hope you’ll find the time to read it and let me know your thoughts.

By the way, I am not Asian-American, and as much as I love the title to this feature, I can’t help but be a little embarrassed by my European-based name behind it! I did, however, interview experts in this field.

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