Dividing by Zero for Fun and Profit · 2:50am
Dear Loyal Watchers, Interested Visitors, and Confused Passersby;
It doesn't happen very often anymore, but every once in a great while I find myself in charge of a classroom where the kids are... well, good.
I don't just mean that they listen to directions, or that they do their work. What I mean is that they, when given the impetus to do so, choose to work quietly of their own accord. Every once in a blue moon I find myself in a classroom where I have to remember to look up form whatever papers I'm grading to check and see if some child is sitting there quietly with their hand raised, waiting to catch my attention rather than screaming across the room. I mean it! There are still classrooms out there where the students see the teacher stand and immediately put away whatever free-time project that are working on and get ready to work without being prompted to do so, or will choose to quietly read a book over running around the room like a manic gazelle.
Yes, sometimes I get such a class. It's not often, but it does happen.
I'm not saying that I'm trying to stifle the kids or make them abandon their individuality or some crazy crap like that, but to an educator knowing that I have the attention of a class means knowing that I can trust them with more responsibility, and that we can accomplish more and "let learning happen."
It also means that I can do stupid, crazy stuff and get away with it... like dividing by zero.
The ideal class fell into my clutches about two weeks ago. The teacher I was filling in for was away on jury duty, so I had the class for about five days in a row, which was truly something. This was a very good class, one that hung on my every word and stuck to the classroom routine in the absence of their regular teacher like adherents of a forgotten religion. As I looked over the math lesson I would be teaching the next day, a wicked thought crossed my mind, and a little grin went across my bearded features.
Yes, I thought, now I shall divide by zero for fun and profit.
The lesson itself concerned dividing by one and multiplying by zero and one. Pretty standard fare for third grade kids in the middle of the school year, ones who were looking forward to the 100th Day of School (a new secular holiday that has my endorsement). As the lesson progressed I began to feign being worried, even scared, and the kids began to pick up on it.
"Oh no!" I cried. "Can... can they possibly want us to... divide by zero!?"
The kids looked a little more worried.
"We... we can never divide by zero! What can we never do!?" I asked.
"Divide by zero," they answered, growing more and more befuddled. So, as the lesson went, I added more and more flourish every time the lesson mentioned dividing by zero and the impossibility of doing so, once even nearly fainting away with falsified angst. Finally, on the very, very last question of the lesson, the new unholy Common Core lesson-in-a-box asked the kids to come up for four multiplication and division fact families for some numbers... including one that can not be named.
"Mr. (T.D.)?" asked a young man named Matthew. "why should we never divide by zero?"
By now, my meme-based humor was attempting to burst out of my chest, and I could barely contain my smile.
"No!" I cried. "You must never, never, never divide by zero! No one knows what could happen! It's too dangerous!"
"Fine! Try it if you must! But I warned you!"
The kids looked at each other with bemusement, fear, and smiles.
Matthew lifted his pencil...
"Oh no! Quickly!" I called. "Hide under your desks!" And, because they were a good class... they did. "Aaargghh! It's happening again!" I continued. "You had to divide by zero, didn't you!?"
At that moment I started this video on the Smart Board. I had prepared it before class began, and had set it to repeat. I think it got the message across pretty well...
As the video played I exhorted my young charges to emerge from their hiding spots beneath their desks. "Quickly!" I implored them, "Put on your Groundhog Hats! Hurry, Hurry! Make barnyard animal sounds as you dance the Dance of the Groundhogs! We have to interpret grapefruit before the volcanologists discover France!"
Cue a group of eight and nine year olds wearing Groundhog Day hats making their way around their classroom as they clucked, mooed, whinnied, and quacked—each one doing a ancient, traditional dance that they had pretty much made up then and there. I myself did The Monkey and did an excellent interpretation of one of those goats that climb the trees in Spain.
"Quickly, quickly!" I exhorted. "Back in your seats and your Groundhog costumes off before the broccoli sees us!"
And, because they were a good class, they were back in their seats, their eyes back on their (bizarre) teacher before I had even closed out the video window, nothing more than a few giggles and smiling faces to show a class that will now, almost certainly, know that dividing by zero is not something they should ever attempt... mathematically or emotionally.
Sometimes I get a good class, one that I can trust with the unusual, zany, and utterly "me" things that I enjoy about my job...
... sometimes my life is just more awesome than I have any right to ask it to be.