• Feeling Math

    I was recently reminded how important it is to have a Feel Good File. I started mine when I was teaching middle school twenty-five years ago, and I still have one for items that I receive from my university students (although it is largely a digital folder now).

    My Feel Good File contains handwritten notes, photographs, e-mails, and drawings from my students, their parents, my colleagues, and people whom I have never met. It is a clearinghouse for items to pick me up when I need it most. You never know when it’s going to come in handy—all teachers have those days when they need a pick-me-up. And although I could imagine a Feel Good File packed with Father’s Day cards from my own children, I choose to keep it for items that focus on my teaching or the impact that I have had on a student. When I have a day when my teaching is less than stellar, I can open this folder and be reminded that my teaching really does make a difference.

    I also wondered recently about making a Feel Math File—a place where I could put reminders that mathematics is awesome. Too often, we are bombarded with the perception that mathematics is strictly about calculations or procedures, and we forget about the beauty and wonder that may have gotten us excited about mathematics in the first place. We should have a reminder of what it means to feel math, not what it means to do math.

    A month ago, I received a book in the mail—Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality (2013), by the mathematician Edward Frenkel. There was no indication of who had sent the book or its purpose. A week later, I received a note from a former student, asking if I had received the book. He explained that he had heard about this book and that it reminded him of me. He is a first-year teacher, working hard to reach and teach his students. He had taken a history of mathematics course from me in which I spent a lot of time talking about the awesomeness of mathematics—and Frenkel’s book tries to rekindle that same spirit for its readers.

    On the book jacket, Frenkel wonders:

    What if you had to take an art class in which you were only taught how to paint a fence? What if you were never shown the paintings of van Gogh and Picasso, weren’t even told they existed? Alas, this is how math is taught, and so for most of us it becomes the intellectual equivalent of watching paint dry.

    Although I know that Frenkel’s perception of how mathematics is taught is monochromatic, informed only by a traditional pedagogy, we all know that his perception is still the reality for some students. But his idea that we need to return to what makes mathematics awesome and wonderful is critical here. His premise is that we have engendered in our students the idea that mathematics is about rote memorization, not about its beauty and power. To me, this means that we need to refocus our energies on the need to feel math, rather than do math.

    So another note, another gift from a former student—the type of thing that has helped stuff my Feel Good File for twenty-five years—has yielded something new for me: a Feel Math File.

    What is something that you would put in your Feel Math File? What is something that you can turn to as a reminder of what inspired you to love mathematics? In my fourth and final blog entry, I will share with you one of my earliest mathematical muses—puzzles.


    Frenkel, Edward. 2013. Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality. New York: Basic Books, Perseus Books Group.

    Jeffrey WankoJeffrey J. Wanko teaches mathematics methods courses at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He is interested in the development of students’ logical reasoning skills using puzzles.