The Mathography

During the first week of school this year I assigned a mathography. It’s essentially a math biography and details one’s relationship and life experiences with math. This was a new idea to me and my colleague Stephanie Murdock put me on to it in the spring. She learned about from Wendy Menard’s NCTM session in D.C. earlier this year. Here is Wendy’s handout.

After assigning it, I figured it would take me forever to read them all (~120). So instead of getting overwhelmed and trying to cram them all within a week and probably not remembering anything about my students, I promised myself to read them a little bit at a time in bite-sized chunks. I wanted to slowly digest them, to really savor them. Each day, I might read a couple in the morning when I got to school and also just before I leave for the day. Maybe I squeeze in another during lunch. And because I want the kids to know that I read them and that their story matters, I write a healthy, thoughtful comment on each one (thanks Google Classroom). My goal is to read and comment on each mathography by the close of the first marking period. I may not make that deadline, but I don’t really care now because they’ve been so interesting.

Now that I’ve read a good number of them, I failed to anticipate the closeness that I would feel with my students as a result of the assignment. I’m learning things about my students that I would have never found out before. When I look at my students (some of whom I even had last year), I actually see them through their relationship with math. I can welcome who they are in our classroom because I actually know who they are now. It’s wonderful. And not only is it what they write about that tells a lot about who they are, but it’s also how they choose to write. For example, a few students submitted poems and fictional stories as their mathography. They beamed with artistry, were pleasant surprises to the pool of personal narratives that I expected, and told me so much about those particular students in ways that beyond what their words did.

I’ve always tried to pride myself as someone who works hard to get to know my students. But I’ve never done it through formal writing, like this. What a huge difference! Come to think of it, because writing plays an important role in my personal life, I understand the power of reflection and written word…and it only seems natural that I experience it with my students. That said, I’m so disappointed that I didn’t assign this to students earlier in my career.

Also, it was clear from their writing and from their reactions to the assignment itself, that my students had never formally reflected or wrote about their relationship with mathematics. This has been refreshing for them and me. And exactly why it’s so important that I assign it again next year.

I’ll close by sharing excerpts from some of the mathographies that I’ve read so far.

  • Math is like an ocean. The deeper you get into it the more harder and challenging it gets. Although it has different layers just like math has different concepts, if you look at it in a big picture it is really just one concept all together as one.
  • I’ve always had a constant battle with math. Whether it was counting money, telling time, or measuring something, math never seemed to be on my side. Since I was a kid, I would classify myself as “not a math person”. I wasn’t terrible at math, I was actually quite good, yet I never enjoyed it. My teachers also tended to teach a certain way which didn’t allow me to find my own way to solve problems. Math only got worse from there.
  • In the 8th grade it was the best, my love for you could have burst through my chest. [line from a poem]
  • When first introduced with mathematics, I was not thrilled with the idea of learning through numbers. At the same time it was a new learning experience, so why not give math a try. I ABSOLUTELY HATED MATH. My brain exploded when face to face with math. There was simply too much combinations of numbers at once. I gave up on it and just turned my mind to Science and History during my elementary school days.
  • Being an Asian, we’re usually stereotyped with being good at math. Also known as a subject I can’t ever get a good grade in because exams stress me out to the point I fail or score really low on. I hope to understand all math concepts at one point in my life but right now it seems like a stretch for me.
  • In English, I can annotate and understand the central idea. In history, I can study the important dates and find out why they’re significant. When it comes to Math, you need to understand each concept thoroughly and if you miss a step it’s automatically wrong.
  • My earliest memory of math I would say would be in kindergarten. I attended school in Mexico. I lived with my grandma for 3 years. I was about 5 years old. I remember going to pick eggs every 2 days with my grandma and she would count with me every egg we picked in Spanish. Every chore I did with my grandma would require counting out loud. I have to thank my grandma because if her I leaned my numbers pretty quick.
  • Math isn’t just a subject, it’s an experience.
  • As time passed things just got harder. I got less and less star stickers on the board for correct answers as I watched people get every single one of them. I have always been jealous of those people that just understood math with no problem. How did they get it so fast? That’s the main question I always use to ask myself. There were times where I felt like there was something wrong with me or I felt like I was never going to understand. No matter how fast I ran or how much I tried to avoid math I couldn’t get rid of it.
  • The bane of every math teacher’s existence is when a student asks why. Why are we doing this? How does this relate to our life? How will it affect us? To this day I still haven’t gotten a clear answer and why is it that most teachers can’t tell me why. They all have the same answer “I don’t actually know. Search it up and tell me tomorrow.” It’s ludicrous to think that someone who has devoted their life to a job wouldn’t actually know why they’re teaching a subject. Then there are people who say “their job is just to help us pass the test or the regents.”
  • I don’t recall any specific positive memories with math from my early childhood. My classmates were angry at the attention I received, and some of the teachers assumed my family gave me the answers.
  • When I came to the United States at the age of 3, I only spoke, understood and wrote Spanish which is why ELA was difficult for me the first 5 school years. However, the numbers stayed the same, they didn’t change their meaning, one continued to be uno, two continued to be dos, three continued to be tres etc.
  • For most of my years, math has not been so much of a satisfying experience, it was thought of something that I just had to do. I can only hope that in the future, math continues to surprise me and that we can find peace with one another. Maybe one day, math will find its permanent and pleasant place in my life.  
  • To me the whole concept of math and what math is completely confusing. I understand that I’ll need math in my life to keep track of my money and all that good stuff but there’s some topics in math that I just don’t understand how I’ll ever apply what I learned in those classes in my life beyond school. Classes like geometry, trigonometry, and calculus make no sense to me to be completely honest. When will I ever need to find the circumference of a circle or the Cos off point A in a right triangle? You see where I’m coming from?

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