I’m so excited that my book Open Middle Math: Problems That Unlock Student Thinking, Grades 6 – 12 just came out for secondary math teachers. I’ve learned so much from this experience that I wish I knew earlier on. So, I’m writing this blog post with hopes that this information will help aspiring authors and also give me a chance to reflect on my own journey.
During that break, I read a lot of education books. However, where normally I read them to learn their content, now I was also thinking about how the author shared what she knew. I didn’t enjoy books that were overly formal as much as the ones that were conversational. Formal books made me feel like a child who should have known better but didn’t. Conversational books made me feel like I was getting advice from a colleague who wanted to see me grow. In that moment I realized I had to completely change my writing voice when I started again. In retrospect, I would have hated the book I was initially setting out to write.
Second, I listened to this podcast episode from Amy Porterfield (beginning at 9:01) about how to structure an online workshop. The guest talks about a post-it note strategy that helps people organize their content from disorganized information into a journey that takes someone from where they are to where they want to be. She meant this advice for an online workshop, but I modified the process to work for my book and it changed everything for me.
Using my experiences with StoryBrand, I thought about where math educators are now and where they want to go. Next, I thought about what the journey between those two points would look like. What would the steps be to go from one place to the other? Each of those steps then became chapters in my book.
For example, I imagined that a reader picking up my book may feel like she has resources that feel like they were written in 1970 (completely outdated) or 2070 (so far from their comfort zone that they feel inaccessible) and has students who do math robotically, because they’re forced to. She’d like to get to a place where she’s got resources she can immediately use to support and challenge all of her students so that they’d be excited to do math and begging to do more.
With that in mind, I thought about the steps that would take her from what she felt when she first picked up my book to where she wanted to be. I figured that first, she’d want to read about how Open Middle problems could help her. If she saw their value, then she’d be more open to learning about why they’re different from other problems. Then we could dive deep into how to implement them including how to choose a problem, how to prepare to use a problem, how to present it to her class, what to do if it doesn’t go as planned, and how to facilitate the discussion. Finally, she’d want to know about where to find more free problems she could use including making her own.
At this point, I’d hope that she’d feel like she’s much closer to where she’d want to be because she’d be excited about these resources and looking forward to immediately using them. Before my hiatus, there was no story. The book was just a collection of loosely related ideas and it was up to the reader to figure out how they connected or how they’d help her.
The best storytellers know what details to add and what to leave out. This makes sense in theory but is challenging to do in practice. My initial drafts were essentially, “Here’s every single thing I know about this topic crammed into a book” because I wanted to provide as much value as possible. I felt like I had to share everything I knew. At the same time, there are very few math teachers complaining that a professional development book is too short.
As an example of how this played out, I had considered talking about integrating Open Middle problems with technology or why Open Middle problem are different than brainteasers. I’m sure that some people would have valued this information, but at the same time, it would have made the book even longer.
Ultimately, I decided to apply de Saint-Exupery’s rule and ask myself, “If I removed this from the book, would the book be readable?” If the answer was yes, I cut it. If it broke the book, it stayed. My goal was to end up with the shortest (and also most affordable book) that was jam packed with useful information for secondary math teachers. I sure hope I came close.
Ultimately, there were only a few stories from my blog posts that made it into the book, but the reality is that in general this principle did not work. Some of the reasons why include:
- Connecting all the blog posts together felt confusing like a rambling, tangential story.
- My thinking had evolved since I first wrote many of the blog posts and I wanted to express what I said differently.
- A lot of my blog posts focused on Depth of Knowledge, and that became less of a focus of my book as I got deeper into the writing process.
Another concern was that I would reference something that made the book dated. For example, Depth of Knowledge was very trendy in 2016 when I wrote the proposal, but by 2018 it had already started to cool off. I didn’t want to tie my book’s value to a term like Depth of Knowledge, so the hiatus gave me more perspective and allowed me to shift the focus towards Open Middle problems.
I realize now that there’s no way to make a flawless book, but I sure tried. A core belief I have is “Do the best you can do and that’s the best you can do.” Many people put their best effort into this book and I have to hope that it’s enough.