Great Moments in Teaching: The Third Dimension (part I)

“How many other dimensions are there?”

“Well, four, according to Einstein, and five according to Madeline L’Engle, if you’ve read A Wrinkle in Time.”

“I have!” Priya’s hand shot up. “It’s a tesseract!”

I was impressed. Not many girls read that classic anymore. “But we’re going to stick to three dimensions.”

“Isn’t real life three dimensions?” asked Tess.

“Yes. But if you think of it, up to now, we’ve only been working in two. We’ve spent a lot of time in the coordinate plane thinking about lines. In two dimensions, a line can be formed by any two points on the coordinate plane. We’ve been working with systems of equations, which you think of as algebraic representations of the intersections of two lines. We can also define distance in the coordinate plane, using the Pythagorean theorem. All in two dimensions.”

Now, no mocking my terrible art skills” and I put up this sketch, the drawing of which occurred to me the night before, and was the impetus for the lesson.

Everyone gasped, as they had in the previous two classes. My instincts about that clunky little sketch proved out, beautifully. No clue why.

“Holy sh**,” groaned Dwayne, the good ol’ country boy who offered to paint my ancient Honda if I gave him a passing grade. He doesn’t like math. He’s loud and foul and annoying and never shuts up. That last sentence is a pretty good description of me, so I’m very fond of him. “What the hell is that? Get it off the screen, it hurts my eyes.”

“That is awesome,” offered Talika, a senior I had last year for history. “How long did it take you to draw that?”

“What is that white stuff spread everywhere? Did someone get all excited?” asked Dylan, a sophomore whose mother once emailed me about his grade, giving me the pleasure of embarrassing him greatly by describing his behavior.

“Ask your mother,” I replied, to a gratifying “ooooo, BURN!” from the class, who knew very well what had happened.

“How did you draw that?” asked Teddy, curious. “It’s not ordinary graph paper, right?”

“No, it’s isometric paper, which allows you to draw three dimensional images. So…”

“This is really stupid,” said Dwayne. “I’ve taken algebra 2 three times and no one’s ever taught me this.”

“Best I can tell, no one’s ever taught you anything , and not just not in algebra 2,” I replied, earning another “Oooooo” from the class and an appreciative chuckle from Dwayne.

“It’s weird, though, because in two dimensions, you start in the middle,” offered Manual, who was consulting with Prabh, another bright kid who rarely speaks.

“That’s a good point! For example, if we were going to plot seating positions in this room in two dimensions, we’d start with Tanya,” I said, moving to the class center and indicating Tanya, who looked a bit confused. “So Tanya would be the origin, and Wendell would be (1,0), while Dylan would be (1,-1).”

“I’m not negative!” Dylan said instantly, talking over my attempt to continue. “You’re saying I’m negative. You don’t like me.”

“Hard to blame anyone for that,” said Wendell who is considerably more, er, urban than Teddy, with pants down to his knees and a pick that spends some time in his hair. Despite his occasional class naps, he maintains a solid C+, and could effortlessly manage a B if I could just keep him awake. “S’easy, dude. It’s like one of those x y things, like we’re all dots on the graph.”

“You’re one down and one to the right of me,” pointed out Tanya.

Dylan was interested in spite of himself. “So Talika’s, like, (0, 4)?”

“Yes,” several students chorused.

“Then I’m negative 8.” said Dwayne, unhappy with any conversation that doesn’t have him at the center.

“More like….(-2,2), yeah,” says Cal.

Ben speaks up, “But how come Tanya’s at the center for mapping the room’s people, but your sketch is, like, from the left?”

“Or right?” Sophie, from the back.

“Or is it….outside?” asks Manuel.

“Yes, it’s kind of like you’re standing on a desk in Ms. Chan’s room and the walls are transparent,” says Ben, more certainly. Ben is repeating Algebra 2 after having taken it with me last semester. Very bright kid who clowned incessantly, confident in his ability to learn without really trying, only to learn that Algebra 2 was different from other nights, and he wasn’t finding the afikoman. I advised him to repeat. The big sophomore not only agreed, but specifically asked to repeat with me. His attitude and behavior is much improved. I ran into him while walking across the courtyard a few weeks earlier, and he said “I just realized I was Dwayne and Dylan combined last semester, and it’s so embarrassing. I’m really sorry.”

“I’m not enough of an artist to know if I could have drawn this any other way. It just seemed intuitive to me last night, when I came up with the idea.”

“See, I knew it,” trumpeted Dwayne. “You’re making this up!”

“Yeah, I know this isn’t in any algebra book” said Wendy, a sophomore whose excellence in math is often hard to discern beneath her complaints. “This is just some weird thing you’re doing to make us think about math.”

I picked up at random one of the four algebra 2 books sitting on my desk (I’m on the textbook committee) and walked over to Wendy’s desk, opening it to the “Three Dimensional Systems” chapter. She looked, and said “Ok, maybe not.”

“So just as we can plot points in two dimensions, we can plot points in three. Take Aditya here,” my TA, who was watching the circus in amusement. “How could we represent him as a point on my graph?”

Teddy said instantly, “Yeah, I’ve been working that out. I can’t figure out which the new one is, and what do we call it? Where’s x, where’s y?”

Sanjaya said, “I think the part along the ground is x. Like if you go along the bookshelf?”

“Like this?”

“Yes,” Sanjaya said, confidently. “That has to be x. So you could count to Aditya, right?”

“Count which way?”

“The bottom!” “The bottom line!” “the bottom..axis, thing. The X!” comes a chorus of voices.

I start counting, and while I do, Sophie objected. “But hang on. I still don’t see what the new thing, direction, is. What’s the third?”

“Up! said Calvin, who rarely participates and often tunes out so far he can’t keep up. But he was watching this with interest. “You know how the class map with Tanya was going north and south and east and west. But it’s all flat, like. This picture has an up.”

“Yeah!” Ben got it. “Cal’s right.”

Dwayne has begun to grasp this. “So you can’t just draw a line? You have to follow along the…things?”

“The axes.” I finish counting along the “bottom” axis and go over to my bookshelf in the furthest corner of my room. “So the sketch starts here…QUIET! One conversation at a time, and I’m the STAR here. The origin starts at this bookshelf. I am walking along the wall, hugging it, on my way to Aditya. Does everyone see how they could track my progress on the axis?”

“YES!” from various points of the room.

“What the hell are you doing?” Dwayne is watching me carefully hug the wall.

“Everyone except Dwayne?”

“YES!” much louder.

I walked along the wall to the table where Aditya sat (fourth along the wall) and stop.

“So now what?”

“You’re there.”

“No, not yet.” countered Nadine. You have to go out….” she waved me towards her. “this way.”

“Yeah, towards Aditya,” this from Talika.

I stepped out 2 steps or so. “That all?”

Josh frowned. “Yeah. You’re there. Except…”

“UP!” Sophie shouted from the back. “That’s the third axis!” General approval reigns loudly, until I wave them all quiet, or try to.

“You go up 4!” Teddy shouted.

“OK. So Aditya is about 40 units out along the wall, 2 units out towards…the door, and 4 units up. Yes?”

“Yes!”

“So let’s draw that.”

Of course, while I’m drew this, general mayhem is ongoing with my back turned. I shouted “QUIET! or “Could someone stick a sock in Dwayne?” a few times.

“Wow, so it’s a…cube?”

“A prism, yes. So here’s what we’ve done. We’ve taken the two dimensional x-y coordinate plane and extended it.”

“We extended it up,” from Sophie.

“Yes. And now, instead of a rectangle, we have a three-dimensional rectangular prism. And we can describe things now in three dimensions. But we can do more than that. So let’s step away from my classroom sketch….”

“Whoa. What’s that?” Dylan.

“Man, that’s f***ed up. I just started to get this, and now you’re….” Dwayne, of course.

“No, it’s fine,” Manuel said. “It’s just like the whole thing moved to the center.”

“Oh, I see. It’s like there’s four rooms, all cornered.” Wendell.

“Yes, exactly. Except now, you want to stop thinking about it as a room and think of it as a coordinate plane. As Sophie says, the new plane is the up/down one. So the old x is now here. The old y is now here. The z is the straight up and down one. I think of it as taking the 2 dimensional plane and kind of stepping back and looking down on it.”

“That’s just….”

“DWAYNE BE QUIET. One thing to remember: when you see a 3-dimensional plane, they may be ordered differently. There’s a whole bunch of rules about it that make potentially obscene finger orientations, but I promise I won’t test you on that.”

“So let’s say we’re plotting the point (8,4,5). I’m going to show you how to do it first. Then I’ll go through why. Start by plotting the intercept along each of the planes.”

“Man, does anyone else get this?”

“YES. Shut up, Dylan,” says Natasha.

“The trick to remember when you’re graphing in 3-d is to stay parallel to the axis you’re drawing along. So never cross over the lines when plotting points. Now let’s add the yz and xz planes.

“What? This is weird. Why are you drawing so many rectangles?” Patty, frowning.

“What you have to visualize is that it’s like we’re drawing sides. So far, I’ve drawn,” I look around and grab three of my small whiteboards, “the bottom and two of the sides. Hold this, Natasha, Talika.” and I build the walls. The kids in the back stand up and look over.

“Oh, I see,” Teddy again. “You’re drawing the prism again.”

“Right. It’s just looking different because the axis is in the center.”

“You do all this just to plot one point?” Sophie, ever the skeptic.

“Yes, but remember this is more just to illustrate, to see how you can extend the dimensions. So after you draw the three sides, joining the intercepts for xy, yz, and xz intersections, you extend those out–again, along the lines.”

“So the point we’re graphing is going to be at the vertex, the intersection of the three planes, the furthest point from the origin–just like in two dimensions, the point is at the intersection of the two lines.”

“That’s really complicated.” Wendy sighed.

“No, it’s not” “Don’t you see the…” Ben, Manuel, Teddy, Wendell and others jump in at the same time, while Dwayne bellowed, Wendy and Tess were asking questions of the room, and, as the writer says, pandemonium ensued. It was a shouting match, yes, but they were shouting about math. The Naysayers, the Doubters, and the Apostles were all marking their territory and this was no genteel, elegant, “turn and discuss this with your partner”, no think-pair-share nonsense. This was a scrum, a brawl, a melee conducted across the room with the volume up at 11—but just like any good fight, there was order beneath the chaos, a give and a take at the group level.

And for you gentle souls wondering about the quiet kids, the introverts, the shy ones who need time to think, they were enthralled, watching the game and making up their mind. It may not look like everyone gets time to talk, but pretty much every time you read me call on a kid, it’s a quiet one. And I shush the room. Then the quiet kid sits there in shock as he or she realizes oh god, I’ve got the mike and I can’t be a spectator anymore.

Anyway, the story goes on with a second great moment, but I’m getting better at chunking and this half had too many details I didn’t want to give up. I’ll stop here for dramatic effect. Because oh, lord, I was high as a kite in this moment, watching the room, realizing I was riding a tremendous wave of energy and excitement. Yeah. ME. On Stage. Making Drama.1

Now I just had to come up with a good ending.

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1I’m not congratulating myself, saying I’m proving kids with the great moment. No, the great moment is mine. I’m standing there going oh, my god, this is a great moment in teaching, in my life. For me! The kids, hey, if they liked it, that’s good.