Math Learners Have Stories to Share!

At the beginning of every year for the past several years, I’ve started with simple questionnaires for students, asking about their past experiences in math class. It’s always been nice, but a lot of students didn’t take it all that seriously, and to be honest, since I was trying to get going on content, I didn’t take nearly as much time as I would have liked to make them meaningful. To be honest, it was a self-congratulatory way to make it look like I was getting to know students, without doing a very good job of it.

This past spring, at the NCTM annual conference, I attended a session by Wendy Menard and Emma Gargroetzi  about Mathography Writing. This was just the enhancement that I was looking for, and I was excited to start this year off with student mathographies. The first day, students still filled out a similar questionnaire, but we then used that as a launching point to spend time over the next two classes* telling our stories. (Yes, I told my own story as well). On the third day of class, we also took time to share something that we had reflected on through these three days about our experiences in the past with math and math class.

The first thing I noticed when I started reading through these papers is that they were long. I mean, not pages and pages and pages, but they all really told a story. Some of the stories were exhilarating, and some were heartbreaking. Many students wrote about crying in class, crying in the bathroom at school during class, crying in their bedroom at home, crying at their kitchen table, crying with friends, crying with family. Many talked about feeling dumb or stupid or lazy – words that others used towards them and that they internalized. It wasn’t all bad, though. Most students wrote about a positive experience or two. Some of those good feelings came from good test grades or good class grades, but more came from feelings of accomplishment after solving a problem, or from feelings of wonder at being introduced to some new and surprising idea in mathematics. With all of these stories, I really did start to actually connect my students to their individual experiences as members of the math world. I knew which of my students loved juggling, and which one listens to Iannis Xenakis, and who has a mathematician for a father, and what that means to her. I learned about the student with dyslexia who was pulled from her math classes from 2nd through 5th grade to work on her reading skills, and then was stuck in remedial math in middle school because she had missed so much math class that she was years behind.

The next week, I was approached by multiple students about these mathographies. It was the first time that many of them had ever taken the time to reflect on their math experience as a whole. For some of them, it was a time for realizing that many of their struggles came from external sources, and not just from within. For most, this was the first time that a math teacher had asked them to share these stories, and the first time they felt heard. I hope I can hold onto these stories throughout the year. We are still in the honeymoon period when we are just getting into the content, and our first assessments are coming up later this week. Still, I’m cautiously optimistic. This is the most success I think I’ve ever had in building relationships with students from day one, and the most success I ever have (which is no surprise to most teachers I’m sure) is when I am able to build a connection with the learners in my classes.

I shared one of my highlights in a tweet last week:

Tomorrow’s the next time math club meets since this student approached me, and she’s asked multiple times to confirm. I hope our exploration of Pascal’s triangle lives up to her expectations! (Also, just heard that Pascal wasn’t the first to play with this triangle, so if I get time, I really need to look into that. Ha…time. I don’t really have time to write this, but I also didn’t have a choice – it had to be written!

*During those classes, we did break away from writing to do a variety of math based games – the four 4’s problem was a favorite. We also created class soundtracks. Every student has a theme song, so my Spotify class playlist on shuffle becomes a great way to call random students to share their learning. I think I have Ed Campos, Jr. and Matt Vaudrey to thank for those ideas, but I’m sure others have given me ideas as well.

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