My Speech is now live on youtube! For those of you who missed me talking at MfA’s MT-squared, here it is: Become the Subject.

The script for my speech is below (since this video is uncaptioned):

Good evening. I’m delighted to talk with you tonight. First, let me share a dirty little secret: math class is not as fun as science class! Controversial, I know. I realized this as a first-year teacher when I taught both. The problem is I’m a math teacher, and passionate about it!

Those of you who *are *science teachers likely enjoy designing classroom experiments that facilitate discussions by unpacking student observations. I remember one such experiment, my first-year teaching, when I put food coloring in cups of cold and hot water. My 6th graders watched, fascinated, as the color spread much more quickly in the hot water. In an animated discussion, we made connections to brewing tea in hot water, and ultimately spoke about the impact of temperature on the speed of molecules. My students were excited and talked enthusiastically about the experiment.

Later that day, I taught those same students a math lesson. They showed much less interest in adding fractions with unlike denominators. Class became a battle: I spent all my energy trying to get students to do the math, while they spent all *their *energy trying to distract me and avoid doing math. “What are you doing this weekend, Mr. G?” they asked. “Do you have a girlfriend?” “Do you have any kids?” When asked a personal question, I stonewalled with, “That’s off topic” or “That’s irrelevant.” I thought I was keeping them on task. But what I didn’t realize was that some students were genuinely curious about who I was and wanted to connect with me, and I was rebuffing their efforts!

This leads me to the challenge we face: “How do we provide students with classroom experiences that promote rich discussions and engage their curiosity in math class?” My principal advised, “Just make your lessons more engaging.” “But how?” I asked. I hadn’t learned how to do that in grad school! Meanwhile, my students seemed overly curious about me and uninterested in the math. Then, during my second year of teaching, I had an epiphany and realized that I could use one problem to solve the other!

The breakthrough came after I had delivered a boring lesson on converting Celsius to Fahrenheit. My coach observed that while my students were plugging numbers into the formulas, they had no motivation—it was sheer drudgery. She suggested an alternative: What if I had launched the day’s lesson with a story? Suppose I said I’d gone to Canada, checked the weather before going outdoors and it was 20 degrees. I bundled up tight, expecting it to be bitterly cold, but when I got outside, I was sweating. What do you think happened? This would pique my students’ interest and elicit from them that I’d interpreted a temperature in Celsius as Fahrenheit. Now we had a REASON to learn how to convert temperatures – so we wouldn’t make the same mistake Mr. G made on his Canadian trip.

Using storytelling to hook students and help them learn math was a brand-new idea for me. Immediately, I found it highly effective. The first time I tried this, the kids were more attentive and enthusiastic than I had ever seen them. And so, I became a storytelling teacher. The purpose of my stories wasn’t to tell the literal truth about my experiences, but to cultivate rapport with my students and develop a reason for the mathematics. I leveraged student curiosity about me to engage them before they even realized we were solving math problems. Gradually, I evolved from fabricating stories to turning actual incidents in my life into math problems.

For example, last year, I launched a problem in class like this. “How many of you like bagels? *[Encourage audience to raise their hands].* Me too! I love bagels. We’re lucky we live in NYC, because we have the world’s best bagels. Sadly, my Bubbe doesn’t live in NYC; she lives in Connecticut, where they don’t have great bagels. So like any good grandson, I brought her New York bagels whenever I visited. One time I had to visit on a Monday, when my local bagel store is closed, so I couldn’t bring her any bagels! Let me tell you, my Bubbe never let me hear the end of that! Every subsequent visit, she would ask, “Did you bring the bagels this time?” “Can you believe he forgot the bagels?” So to make sure it would never happen again, I did a little bit of research and I found two other good bagel stores in my neighborhood: Bob’s Bagels and Tom’s Bagels. And both are open on Monday! Can you all help me figure out where I would get the better deal on bagels for my Bubbe?”

My students really got on board with this problem. As I monitored student discussion, I heard lots of conversations about their favorite bagel stores. Students analyzed each other’s methods of determining which store offered the better deal. They were seeing for themselves how mathematics is a powerful tool to solve problems in daily life.

At the end of the year, I asked my students to write a letter with any advice on how to be a better teacher and how they would like me to remember them. One student wrote, “Now, as for any advice, I liked how you would often turn your stories into math problems, it makes math more fun… I want you to remember me as… ‘the kid who reminded you that you forgot to bring your grandma bagels that one time.’” Thanks, kid! That story had stuck with him through subsequent units, and he recalled it as THE thing he wanted me to remember about him. Clearly, my stories resonated with him.

In building relationships with my students, I’m drawing on what I know about relationships in general. In psychotherapy, there is a term for using yourself to create empathy and a relationship with your patients: *a therapeutic use of self.* I propose that teaching needs to coin its own term: *a pedagogical use of self.* A pedagogical use of self is when you strategically embed yourself into the curriculum in stories that will captivate students and cultivate a community of mathematicians—or scientists—in your classroom. Such sharing about yourself will strengthen your relationships with your students. Your curriculum will come to life, your students will get to know you and you’ll draw them into your subject matter.

By using my life pedagogically, I model what mathematics can do for anyone and show students how math can be a tool to help us make sense of, explain, and evaluate our own lives. In eight years of teaching, I’ve evolved from following the lie “Don’t smile until Christmas” and worrying about staying on task, to spending the whole first day of school getting to know who my students are and introducing myself to them – everything from the dog I have to the absurd number of board games I own. By sharing my truths with the students, I build trust and inspire them to share their own truths with me. As a result, I am currently experiencing powerful, vibrant relationships with students and enjoying seeing some of them develop a passion for math.

I hope my evolution will inspire you to embrace a pedagogical use of self as a valuable tool in your own classrooms. Ask yourself, “What are your Bubbe’s bagels stories?” Thank you.