Mr Johnson’s Rainbow

I love reading and writing, and the way that people use words to express ideas fascinates me. So it is no surprise that when I was in Year 12, I studied the highest level of English available. My English teacher was called Mr Johnson and I hated him. (It wasn’t really, Mr Johnson — I’ve changed his name to write this.) The reason I hated him is expressed in this poem I wrote at the time:


The afternoon sky was fretted
With cotton shades of blue
And the rainbow came, inspiring us all
And on some old scrap paper
My thoughts and feelings grew
Some lines of verse upon the page did fall

And then I took the poem
A work all of my own
And to my English classmates did I show
That my poem was Quite Good
To me it was made known
Because my fellow classmates told me so

But the teacher, oh my teacher
Said: I know it is Quite Good
But it is not what I would call My Way
Your verses on the rainbow
Are not the way I would
Ever say the things that I would say

For I, yes I my student,
Am like the poet Donne
As you are like the other poet Keats
You like to write, like he,
On emotion by the ton
Where I do so much higher mental feats

He went on by relating
All the things that he would write
And prattle from his open mouth did flow
He said: the rainbow is
All the colours making light
So there must always be thingy, you know

And I was quite inspired
By this brilliant oratory
And thought:
Why don’t you write your own bloody poem if mine isn’t good enough for you?

The same theme appeared in all of his feedback about all of my creative writing: he disapproved of the content I chose to write about, often saying that it wasn’t clever enough. He never gave me feedback on my expression of those ideas — no discussion of flow or characterisation or word choice or metaphor — only ever that the ideas themselves were not to his taste. One notable example was when we were asked to write a short story about a Far Side comic involving butterflies from the wrong side of the meadow, and so I wrote about the flowers sending rogue butterflies to attack the flowers on the other side of the meadow. I was marked down because I didn’t instead do something more clever, like write about some completely other thing only tangentially related to the theme of the comic. As you can imagine, I did not choose to study creative writing at university, and to this day I still have quite a fear of sharing my writing.

Thinking about how this applies to my maths teaching, I wonder how often we tell students in maths “but it is not what I would call my way”. For example, those times when a student does a perfectly wonderful and correct solution to a problem, but then we tell them it has to be done this way instead. Or those times when we discount their excitement of maths applying to something that interests them to tell them they should be interested in the beauty of the maths itself. Alternatively those times when we get annoyed at the student who wants to understand the ideas behind a method and tell them to just do it and not worry about that. When a student asks me to check their work, do I critique their execution or do I criticise their ideas? What about all those times when I ask the class for what they notice/wonder and then wait until I get the one I was really hoping for? I am worried about students choosing to stop studying maths because we always judge them on their ideas.

As usual, I don’t know what to do about this other than just be aware of it. Just yesterday when this was on my mind I was careful to say to a student how awesome I thought their Quarter the Cross solution idea was, before talking to them about how they might be more precise in their execution so other people could also be sure it was a quarter. I only hope I can have it on my mind a bit more often as I work with students on the everyday stuff in the MLC.

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