...a companion blog to "Math-Frolic," specifically for interviews, book reviews, weekly-linkfests, and longer posts or commentary than usually found at the Math-Frolic site.

"Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty – a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show." ---Bertrand Russell (1907) Rob Gluck

"I have come to believe, though very reluctantly, that it [mathematics] consists of tautologies. I fear that, to a mind of sufficient intellectual power, the whole of mathematics would appear trivial, as trivial as the statement that a four-legged animal is an animal." ---Bertrand Russell (1957)

******************************************************************** Rob Gluck

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Fawn Nguyen... Passion Personified

Math-Frolic Interview  #24

"Mathematics is my passion, and kids are my love – one fuels my head, the other expands my heart. That’s grace." -- Fawn Nguyen

This week, another opportunity to get to know one of my fellow math bloggers better.  I'm tempted to say Fawn Nguyen needs no introduction… even though I don't follow education blogs regularly, early on I kept seeing her name pop up in various places in the math blogosphere; she clearly had a large, loyal following. And reading her varied, instructive, heartfelt, creative posts I understand why. Now that I know more about her whole history I'm even more impressed! If you're not already a Fawn fan you will be after reading her words below...:
(I've added bold to a few lines)


1) For starters, maybe just give us a bit of bio about your path from being a youngster in Viet Nam to being a math educator in Southern California…?

When Saigon fell in 1975, my family made a failed attempt to flee the country by sea. The following year, my older brothers planned another escape for our family, but this time my father did not want to have anything to do with it. The experience from the first attempt scared him, and I supposed it also scarred him. His decision to stay back only meant that my mother and two sisters also had to stay.
So my three brothers, along with my oldest brother’s wife, another sister, and I escaped again in June of 1976. After four days at sea, we were rescued by Thai fishermen who helped us ashore. We stayed in a refugee camp in Songkhla, Thailand, for three months before we were flown to St. Cloud, Minnesota. With the help of a Catholic church in St. Cloud, my sister-in-law’s aunt had sponsored us over.
I had an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher – all to myself :) – for an hour each day for the first two years. Because of this one-on-one attention and the fact that none of my teachers spoke Vietnamese, I picked up English more urgently for survival. Watching television helped; my two favorite shows were Happy Days and The Price is Right. The game show was all about numbers, so I didn’t need to know a lot of English to understand; and the sitcom had The Fonz – and I’m Fawnzie to my family and friends, so that’s where that link is.
One day I realized I was thinking in English. It was really weird. My thoughts were parading in my head with English labels all over them.
Minnesota was too cold, so we moved to Oregon after 3 years.
In college I majored in Biology, made a half-ass attempt at Pre-Med too. I got my teaching credential during my 5th year and was hired to teach science at a middle school where I did my student teaching. After my first year of teaching, I married a medical student whom I’d known for 7 years. When he finished med school, we had our first child, Nicolai. Then Gabriel arrived a couple years later, and then Sabrina was born in 1996.
I married again in 2002. (This was after the dissolution of the first, of course.) We moved to California because my husband got a job here. I took advantage of the location change across state borders to apply for math positions instead. Without a degree in mathematics, I had to pass a few subject tests to become certified. But I’ve always loved math – my father was a math teacher his whole life – so I continued to take post-baccalaureate courses in mathematics. Teaching math seems like the most natural thing for me – I don’t mean natural as in easy because teaching is anything but easy, I just mean natural as in my calling.

[Wow! Remarkable life-story... and both your English and math seem impeccable!
Moreover, as a fan of Happy Days, you'll henceforth always be "Fawnzie" to me ;-)]

2) You have a very popular presence on the Web, where there are 100s of math-education blogs to choose from. So tell us a little about how/when you came to be a blogger, and to what do you attribute the popularity of your work that allows you to break out from the crowd so-to-speak?

I started my blog in late November 2011 wanting to write mostly about food. My first post was about a Thanksgiving dinner that I’d prepared.
I’ve been reading other people’s blogs for a very long time. Not until 4 years ago, I was the only math teacher at my school, so I definitely felt isolated. Scouring the internet for lesson ideas makes me feel connected and current. I steal well.
I write many of my lessons as narratives, and I suppose there weren’t too many of these posts around. That structure is simplest to me because I don’t have to make anything up, I’m just scribing what I see and hear from the lesson. Stuff kids say – or don’t say – helps guide my instruction, so writing them down forces me to reflect. That’s also why many of my lesson posts are normally up the day after we do the lesson. My short-term memory is getting shorter. And the urgency to tell that story – that lesson – keeps me honest. This is probably why I write mostly in present tense, whether it was about the latest lesson or something long ago. The story-telling way that I write lets my voice come through in ways that I hope people can relate to. Or not relate to, but it’s there, and it’s me.

3) You obviously love teaching (I believe you've been at it well over 20 yrs.), in a day when so many teachers are burnt-out quickly. What keeps you motivated and drawing satisfaction from the profession, and do you teach year-round or do something else in the summers? Also, you seem to be very close to your students... do you stay in touch with some of them long after they've moved on from your classroom?

And here I was just about to reveal to the world that I’ve had enough of this damn teaching: the ungrateful kids and their difficult parents, the lousy pay, the long hours, the nonexistent lunch time, the sleep deprivation. Ha! I’m kidding. Not really. Because that’s all true to some extent you know. Right, I think this is year 23 for me. I started teaching when I was 15.
With three kids currently in college, I’m quite motivated to stay employed.
I honestly believe I have the best job, and the only reason I can say that is because of my students. Mathematics is my passion, and kids are my love – one fuels my head, the other expands my heart. That’s grace.
My school feels like home, sans bathrobe and slippers. I have to give my colleagues and administrators credit for that too. At the core of this extended family unit is our deep respect for one another. (Don’t get me wrong, though, I LOVE my weekends – away from school! I guess it’s not unlike loving your children with all your heart, but having a quiet dinner every now and then without them is pretty damn fantastic too.)
Year-round school?? Kill me now, Shecky. All teachers need a more prolonged period to recharge because teaching is draining. It’s tough tough tough. I love this tough work because doing anything easy isn’t worth doing. But it takes its toll. I have yet to learn to eat and exercise properly from September through June – it’s very sad, and I need help.
Yes, I’m still in touch with a few of my former students. It’s weird when the “older” ones start calling me Fawn. Can you believe that my students from my first year of teaching are now 40?! I’m not even that old.

4) Education possibilities evolve incredibly rapidly these days… What online resources do you incorporate into the classroom now that weren't even around say 5-10 years ago? And where does "social media" fit in (do you use it in the classroom at all, or just with your teaching peers)? Finally, how much do you "experiment" with new methods/approaches/resources in a typical year?

Desmos!! Desmos has been the biggest addition to my classroom in the last two years. Other resources we consistently use are Geometer’s Sketchpad and Excel. I just use Remind101 to text parents and students homework for the evening.
I haven’t tried too many new anything this year because we went from two periods of math in the last couple of years to just one period this year. If anything, there are a bunch of solid lessons I’d done previously that I still haven’t had time to squeeze them in this year. I have a set of criteria that a new resource or method has to stand up to before I implement it. (C’mon now, I have some standards, y’all.) Whatever I choose, the math has to be a big component: simple for kids to dive into, yet rich in mathematics content.

5) Which of your blog posts have been the most enjoyable or rewarding for you to work on?

 You are a girl. Female.

[...but have a tissue handy if you're going to read this, folks!]

6)  Math education seems forever controversial!… do you ever foresee a day when there will be wide consensus, rather than strongly-held, competing views of how best to do it? […because personally, I don't! :-(  ]

Consensus in education – that’s like finding tofu in bouillabaisse. I don’t think so. I know we adults talk and make decisions because that’s what adults are supposed to do. But when grown-ups talk, it’s very quick for all the noise to gather around and next thing you know, we can’t hear each other so we’re shouting wanting to be heard. Social media amplifies this noise in magnitudes that were not around 10 years ago. I’m willing to bet that there’s a direct correlation between how fast we receive information now and how fast we react to such information. This instantaneous feedback loop makes us less critical of the information itself yet more critical of the humans with different views than our own. I just don’t like the disrespect, the putdowns, the ill-informed-yet-quick-to-judge, the meanness.
We no longer jump on the bandwagon, we jump on the Ferrari.

7) If you had to give some words of advice to new math teachers, that maybe you wish you'd heard when you first started out, what might you say?

Get help. No, I don’t mean seek psychological help – which maybe I could use. I mean reach out to colleagues, on site and online. What we do is way more honorable than it is heroic. We don’t have to be alone. And misery loves company. MTBos rocks my socks.

8) Finally, when you're not thinking/teaching/doing/dreaming/writing about math ;-) what do you like to do in your spare time?

This is a mean question, Shecky :)
I love reading, eating, gardening, watching foreign movies.


Thanks Fawn; your passion for your work shines through and is inspiring... and I'm blown away a bit learning about your life-story -- our luck to have you here! hope even your long-time fans gained some insight about you as well.

Cathy O'Neil interviewed Fawn, btw, for her views on Common Core awhile back here:

And if you want to see Fawn operating in the flesh she covers several of the same topics from this interview, in a recent brief video (which I also linked to on Friday):

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