These are two words that I hear a lot as a kindergarten teacher, and they make me cringe.
Language is powerful, and as someone who is deeply interested in how teacher language affects the way children form identities as mathematicians and define for themselves what it means to “do math,” I spend a lot of time thinking about words.
Now, if you’re a user of “cute” and “activity” you may have stopped reading already, but I hope not. Because recently, I’ve been wondering if I’ve created a dichotomy between cute and purposeful where perhaps there shouldn’t be. So maybe you can offer me some new thoughts.
I have always defined cute as the antithesis of purposeful and meaningful. When a visitor comes into my classroom, looks at what my children are doing and responds, “They’re so cute.” “What a cute activity! You are so creative!,” I usually give them a piece of my mind.
I sometimes have to restrain myself from stepping up on my soap box and saying, “All of the work I plan and the invitations to mathematical play I extend come from serious consideration of what message I am sending about math. I think, “When I ask my students to work on this problem, what message are they walking away with about what math is?” When I question their thinking and ask them to explain their thoughts or listen to the thoughts of others, I think, “What am I showing them about what it means to be a mathematician?”
Cute is not the message I’m looking to send. Activity, to me, means purposeless work with no real meaning behind it. Now I’m sure I’ve lost a few readers. But if you’re still here, keep reading on, even if you disagree.
This week my mathematicians and I have been talking about different ways to measure. During our Explore time, our kitchen has been converted into a vet clinic as part of our study of heroes and power. During one investigation (I much prefer this word over activity) we measured the length of the stuffed animals from our vet clinic using Unifix cubes. As I planned this investigation, I thought to myself, “What message do I want to send about measurement as a form of mathematizing? I want to show them the usefulness of measurement.”
Our stuffed animal measurement became a “Make a Bed” investigation. ”Some of these animals in the vet clinic may need to spend the night in the clinic. They’ll need beds, but in order to make a bed you’ll have to figure out how to make one that fits the animal.” So, away they went. Measuring, recording, and taking their recordings and Unifix cubes over to the Lego table to construct beds for the animals that would accommodate the length of the animal.”
The kindergarten mathematicians were beside themselves with this investigation. They made the animals talk as they measured them beds. “Don’t give me a small bed,” said an alligator through her puppeteer.
To a kangaroo one boy at the Lego table said, “Let’s see. Your bed is now eleven cubes long. As now I’m going to add some flowers to it, because all kangaroos like flowers.”
As I watched the measuring and constructing of beds, I felt a word bubbling up. A word I detest. Cute. Don’t worry, I didn’t say it aloud. Banish the thought! Is it possible for mathematicians or their work to be simultaneously purposeful and cute? Is cute always a way to belittle the importance of someone’s thoughts or work? Or is it simply a nod to the importance of aesthetic and play in our work? The talking alligator? The kangaroo’s flower bed?
I’m not sure yet, so I haven’t yet said the word aloud. Instead I said, “You really thought about how that alligator would feel in a bed that was the right length for him.” “You’re thinking the kangaroo wants a bed that is the right size and looks nice.”
So, you tell me, is there a dichotomy between cute and purposeful? I’m still figuring it out. And for now, that’s an ok place to be.