I’m on vacation! I actually took a whole half day off to add to my spring break, spent a couple days with my grandkids (keep saying the phrase, it will get more real in a decade or three), then embarked on an epic road trip through the northwest. My goal to write more posts is much on my mind–despite my pledge, I’ve only written 10 posts this year. But I’ve gotten better at chunking–in years past, I would have written one “teaching oddness” post, rather than three.
So this new semester, new year, has already seen some teaching moments that are best thought of as crack cocaine, a hit of adrenaline that explodes in the psyche in that moment and every subsequent memory of it, the moments you know that all those feel-good movies about teaching aren’t a complete lie. Not all moments are big; this one would barely be noticed by an outsider.
I was explaining slope to one of my three huge algebra 2 classes, the most boisterous of them. Algebra 2 is tough when half your kids don’t remember or never learned Algebra 1, while the rest think they know all there is to know, which is y=mx+b and the quadratic formula (no understanding of what it means or how to factor). Meanwhile, my recent adventures in tutoring calculus (be sure to check out Ben Orlin’s comment) has increased my determination to improve conceptual understanding among my stronger students, even if my weaker ones get a tad bored.
“I want you to stop just thinking of slope as a number, something you can only get by looking at two points, subtracting y1 from y2, then x1 from x2. The simplest way to start this process is to consider the slope triangle, which I know a lot of you use to find the slope, but don’t really think about.”
“But think of slope as represented by an actual right triangle. The legs represent the relative change rates of the horizontal and vertical (the x and the y). The hypotenuse is the slope. You can see the rate of change. It’s not just a number. Evaluate slopes by their triangles and you can see the ratio in action.”
I’m skipping over some discussion, some give and take. As I drew pictures, I “activated prior knowledge“, elicited responses as to what slope was, what the slope-intercept form represented, etc. But this was pretty close to pure lecture. I can read the audience–they’re not hanging on every word, but they get it, I’m not preaching to snoozers.
“How many of you remember right triangle trigonometry last year, in geometry?” A few hands, mostly my top kids.
“Come on, SOHCATOA?”
“Oh, yeah, that stuff” and most hands go up.
“So when I teach right triangle trig, I do my best to beat into your heads that the trig identities are ratios. Trigonometry is, in fact, the study of the relationship between the ratios of triangle legs and the triangle’s angles.”
“And that means you can think of the slope of a line in terms of its trigonometric ratio. Take a look at the triangle again, but now use your geometry lens instead of algebra.”
“The slope of a line is rise over run in algebra. But in geometry, it’s opposite over adjacent. The slope of a line is identical to the slope triangle’s tangent ratio.”
“Holy SHIT.” Every head turned around to the back of the room (where the top kids sit), where Manuel, a big, rumpled, exceptionally bright sophomore was staring at my board work.
I smiled. Walked all the way to the back of the room, to Manuel’s desk, tapped it lightly. “Thanks. That means a lot.” Walked back all the way to the front.
Remy smiled knowingly. “That was like some sort of smart-people’s joke, right?”
“Naw,” I said. “His worlds just collided.”
I could do a bit more, explain how I followed up, but no. You either get why it’s great, or you don’t.