Venice Beach, Sunshine, and Math. How this day changed my life.
Updated: Jul 17, 2020
I’ve been mentally and emotionally processing last Friday’s Venice Beach Promenade math teaching experience, constantly, for the last several days. I knew it was a magical day, even as it was happening. I knew the day was an all-around home run. But I wasn’t ready to write about it, because a deeper discovery surfaced only late last night. I finally figured out why the day was so impactful, so much so that it has permanently altered my life’s perspective. In this entry, I’d like to share with you exactly how.
Indeed for months now, I’ve been concocting the audacious idea of standing before a portable whiteboard on the iconic Venice Beach Promenade in Los Angeles, sharing in connective moments with people from around the world, while also sharing the love of math. Here’s info about the event posted on Facebook, in case you want to read about it. There are also some great pictures from the day up there too.
The day began in top shape. I was blessed to be joined by Jonah Lipaz, both a friend and an exceptional videographer and producer. He staked out a centrally located spot on the boardwalk early that morning. When my wife and I arrived, a voice inside my head uttered, “Ok, this is actually real. It’s going to happen.”
As we began to set up the location with cameras, speakers, wires, tables, and whiteboards, I began the morning with a “go with the flow” mental state, which is generally one of my go-to’s. It wasn’t working though; something was amiss. I felt a little better after doing a breathing exercise I always do before big life moments, called the “cross-crawl.” (It works while standing as well, which is how I do it.) It creates a mind-body connection through simultaneous movements and breaths you have to consciously perform. It also aligns the left- and right-brain centers, so that we’re at our personal best, both as rational thinkers (left-brain) and as creators (right-brain). I was going to need every inch of my brain for this leap.
So there I was, using the nearby public bathroom several minutes before embarking, and a wave of nervousness hit me like a torrent through my body. It was actually a pretty dramatic scene: picture being in a dark, horrifically smelling public bathroom in absolute squalor. You’re on a total island. I thought: this was my idea, and deep down I knew it had magnificent potential. Nevertheless, right at that moment, my idea now made me nervous. I thought I knew why I was so nervous at the time, but I was so wrong about why.
I had thought I was just fearful about venturing so far into the unknown, where anything could happen. The image of a drunk person stumbling into my teaching space crossed my mind, for example, or of people being mean and destructive to the moment. Since those were my thoughts at the time, it led me to believe that I was merely afraid of those types of possibilities. It was much deeper than that though. I now realize that the basis of the fear was that I was putting my entire educational philosophy to the test. And on the public stage, my approach would either be vindicated, or obliterated.
Perhaps for years now, you’ve become intimately acquainted with my gospel. I’ve been singing it from the rooftops: students can only experience deep and meaningful learning once they first have a deep and meaningful human connection with their teacher. That if we jump into the content without connecting to the person first, it’s empty at best, and alienating at worst. It’s people over paper, always.
This people-first philosophy is at the heart of Yay Math’s videos, my book, speeches, articles... basically everything with my name on it. And yet, in the videos for example, aren’t I in the safety of my own school, where everyone already knows me? And as an author, upon sharing my ideas and research, I’m completely comfortable in knowing that readers will adopt some of my practices and decline to use others. That’s part of the deal, and I’m totally cool with it. I welcome it in fact.
Furthermore, I’m a pretty adventurous dude. I’m all for taking well thought-out risks, for the greater prize. So the threat of drunks or haters wasn’t really what was fazing me. It was the subconscious whisper that my connect-to-the-people-first approach, after which they’ll actually be enthusiastic to learn math of all things… it was all on the line.
In a recent conversation, a friend, mentor, and educational visionary Roni Habib encouraged me to let whatever emotions I happen to experience at the time course through me, and not to resist feeling them. I was doing just that, in the darkness of that horrendous bathroom. I hit the flusher with my foot, and then thankfully stepped out into the blinding morning sun. In hindsight, everything that transpired from that point on makes total sense to me now. I couldn’t explain it that day, but now I get it.
Essentially, from that moment forward, I was shot out of a cannon. Without even realizing it, I was operating from a place that everything I stood for was at stake. What so fascinates me is how my actions held such gravity, but I couldn’t tell you at the time why they did. I can now though. For example, even though I was cutting it close time-wise, I insisted on making a huge breakfast that morning. I subconsciously knew that I needed to fuel up. Other indicators include how I got pretty sun burnt by the end of the day. Think it through: if your entire focus is cementing your deepest personal values, values that you live by every single day as both a teacher and as a newish parent, then you’re not really thinking of the letters S, P, nor F.
Backed with such deep, high-octane intention, the day was a smashing hit. Jonah is working on producing the videos now. What you’ll see are hoards of people, some who love math, and some who despise it, coming together to experience fleeting yet tangible moments of human connectedness. Highlights include having heartfelt exchanges with people ranging from nine years old to retirement age, hailing from an array of countries including ours, some loving math and some loathing it, all stopping their stroll through that circus-like Venice Beach scene, to engage.
We’re talking countless fist-bumps, group hugs, laughs, vulnerable moments, fears visibly conquered, and unexpected surprises that only added to the day’s flavor. Remember, people, that this is MATH we’re talking about – supposedly enemy #1 in the learning world for so many people. Once I put myself out there, inviting them in from the heart, encouraging them, supporting them, and letting them know that I had their backs, they were in. It all worked.
Riding on such a wave of adrenaline, I was in an elevated energy mode for five straight hours of teaching. It was quite a spiritual high, as I lost track of my body, time, and the space around. In that flow state, I couldn’t even think of eating, although I knew I needed to, so I managed a couple minutes to snack on a cut up mango I bought off a food cart several yards away.
Now that some time has passed since Friday, I have fully embraced the magnitude of the experience. It has changed my life, because that last gear within my being has clicked into place. Connecting with people IS the way. It DOES lead to transcendent learning moments. I knew this in my heart all along, but just knowing it and practicing it in the familiarity of my own class could never compare to rush of putting that philosophy to a real, public test. This is the message to take, fellow educators. We have the power to connect with people who don’t even know us, who may even have their guards up. Yet through our intention of connecting to and supporting them as people, we’ll witness a surge of positivity and learning thereafter.
People’s walls crumbled that day, and from there, I was able to offer them some fresh insights into math thinking. They made mistakes in public, but bounced back. They encouraged people they didn’t know, who stood at different places in the group. And they quietly rooted for that nine-year-old boy, as he challenged himself to learn deep concepts in percentages, which officially is way above his grade-level. But he learned it nonetheless, and the people applauded him. It was pure magic, nothing less.
It’s so wonderful that that Jonah captured all that magic on video. I’m overjoyed to be able to share them with you when they’re done. I don’t exactly when that’ll be, but if you’re signed up for this blog, you’ll know as soon as they’re complete. I’m so thankful to share with you not only the sounds and images from that day, but also how the day holds such enduring magnitude for me, as both a professional, and as a person. Let’s all raise our glasses, to people over paper, for life. It's the way.