Reason and Wonder

In my third year of teaching I taught AP Calculus AB for the first time. I had 10 students (I teach at a small school; more on that later). All of them passed. In fact, six of them earned 5’s. I felt like the king of the world. In reality, I had no idea what I was doing. (In many ways, I still have no idea what I’m doing; more on that later as well.)

A couple years later, four of my students (out of 18) failed to pass the exam. I had a minor crisis for at least a couple of reasons. One, as I continued investing exorbitant amounts of time and energy into my calculus course, as I thought I was getting better, my students’ results (by one measure) were declining. This was more than a little discouraging. Two, if my goal was to equip students to pass the AP exam in order to earn college credit, then I had failed.

I had to stop and think: Was the year of teaching and learning and struggling a complete waste for these four students (and for me in relation to these four students)? My gut told me no, it was not a waste, not even close. So if it wasn’t a waste, then I must have been deceived when I thought (in no uncertain terms) that the primary (only?) goal of the course was to pass an exam and earn some college credit. So what was the goal?

I sat down on September 17, 2009 and tried to sort out the thoughts in my head by writing in a private journal. After a few passionate, yet meandering paragraphs, I settled on this as the reason I taught calculus:

I teach calculus in order that students may reason more soundly and see the beauty of the created world more clearly.

The reason I share this story now, as the first post in what I hope will be more than a few over the days ahead, is that with some minor revisions it expresses why I teach not just calculus, but anything at all. It also explains why I chose the name for my blog. (Thanks to Justin Lanier and Michael Pershan for encouraging me to finally start blogging, and to consider naming the blog in a way that expresses what I’m most passionate about in teaching.)

So here goes:

I teach mathematics in order that my students may reason more soundly and that they may have the capacity to wonder more deeply and profoundly about the world.

That’s it. That’s why I teach. And while I still wait anxiously for AP results to show up online each July, I no longer count my year as a waste or a success based solely on the numbers that appear in those reports. If I’m helping my students to reason with skill and precision, and if they’re growing in their capacity to wonder about and be amazed by the world, then I think I’m doing alright.

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