Two years ago, I attended Ramon Garcia’s Cultural Responsiveness in Math session at TMCNYC. Ramon did a lot at the session, but near the end he shared a booklet that he created which consisted of his students’ math writings. It was called We Broke it Down. We each got a copy.
It was pretty grassroots, but it was polished. He put a lot of effort into turning his students’ math writings into a professional-looking compilation that he could distribute to not only his students and their families, but also his colleagues and the school community. He took great pride in their mathematical ideas, elevated their status, and showcased this by publishing their names in a book. It was unique and inspiring.
When I saw Ramon’s publication that summer, I had already started thinking having my students do formal writing in Algebra 2. For years I was told — like every teacher is — to incorporate writing into my lessons, but this was different. Through my own writing and personal growth, I was discovering writing’s value when it came to teaching math. (Patrick Honner does a wonderful job of discussing this on his blog.) Discovering this meant pushing myself beyond exit slip reflections and Stop & Jots. Not that those are bad, it’s just that I was beginning to view my students as authors of mathematics and not just students who come to math class and write. This shift made me rethink what writing can look like in a math class and why it should look that way.
Most students — especially black and brown students, like those who I teach — are silenced by math. Their perspectives are ignored. Given the countless tests and standards that rush by, students expected to be strict consumers of math. Problem after problem after problem, they’re expected to be vessels that are filled with all the many wonders that math has to offer. They’re expected to see and experience math as static and unchanging.
Ramon’s book reminded me that math can and should be generative and full of original thinking. It reminded me that my students arrive to class each day bearing mathematical gifts. So while it is true that our students need mathematics, it is also true that mathematics needs our students. It needs their perspective, their ingenuity, their questions, their culture, their stories. More than anything, it needs their voice. I wanted my students to understand this. I wanted them to see that they mattered to math.
So I tinkered last year, found some writing structures that worked well, and hoped to create a booklet (like Ramon’s) of my students’ metacognitive journals. I was determined. I even emailed Ramon to get his advice. But with editing, formatting, and asking students to formally type up math, the project turned out to be way more work than I expected. I had to ditch it.
This year, instead of trying to use a publishing software to create a booklet, which I failed at last year, I wondered if I could create an actual book. I knew I didn’t want to go crazy and have an ISBN, but I did want it to be bound and shareable. I stumbled upon the site LuLu in January, downloaded one of their book templates and played around for a few weeks. It seemed doable and I got excited. Because of a grant, my school offered to fit the bill. I was all in.
So this spring, I set off to compile, edit, and publish my kids writing. While the process was still long (being thrust into remote learning didn’t help matters), the book itself ended up better than I expected because in addition to my students’ metacognitive journals, I included their mathography and math haiku. I also went all out and wrote a Preface and Introduction while asking my school colleague Jeffrey Lowenhaupt to pen the Foreword. With everything, it ended up being 107 pages. It’s called Mathematical Voices, Volume 1.
In the book, I made a point to include a piece of writing from every student. This was important. Mathematical Voices represented my students’ deposit into mathematics, a subject that has for years overlooked them. They all had to be there. In the end, all but a couple made it in, which I was initially disappointed about, but accepted.
In coming up with a title, I purposely included Volume 1 to encourage myself to not let this be the first and only book that I create with my students’ writing. Towards the end of the year, when I was finalizing it, my weekly remote learning themes helped me uncover so many more ways to bring writing into my class. Who knows, if I can do this again, maybe those writing tasks will find their way into Mathematical Voices, Volume 2.
My only disappointment with this passion project was that, because of remote learning, I didn’t get a chance to give each of my students their copy of the book. I ordered 130 copies and they’re all sitting in my apartment. It’s quite a letdown, but I’m hopeful that, come fall, I can put the book where it belongs: in the hands of my students.
While any school year is filled with lots of ups and downs, the 2019-20 school year was like no other in history. There was the Covid-19 pandemic, which unleashed its wrath over our country. It took thousands of lives and caused many of my students unthinkable stress, trauma, and personal loss. Then there was the murder of George Floyd, which triggered protests across all 50 states in an eruption of anger and frustration towards police brutality and the racial injustice that pervades our country. While neither of these two events affected any of the writing included in Mathematical Voices, as I gathered it all before schools were closed, they largely defined the school year and how it will be remembered. Given these extraordinary circumstances, my students proved to be fierce and adaptable learners. They also revealed themselves to be exceptional and determined young people. Because their writing was the calm before the storm, so to speak, I hope that, in some small way, this book captures my students’ lives during this unique time in history.