Last year my Algebra 2 students and I created a book using their math writings from the year. We called it Mathematical Voices, Volume 1. I wrote a blog post about the experience, which was birthed at a math conference I attended several summers ago. The goal of the book was to lift up my students’ mathematical ideas, perspectives, reflections, and creative writings in a way that was purposeful and public. I saw it as their contribution to mathematics.
Because of the pandemic and my students being ripped away from me in March, there was a serious lack of closure to the school year. This was compounded by the fact that I wasn’t able to give the book to its authors and rightful owners: my students. Despite my disdain and incertitude about how the year ended, the book excited me because of what it represented.
My delight for the book lingered all summer. I even boasted about it to my new students on Zoom on the first day of class this year. Although it was one-of-a-kind, it felt like something bigger. So, despite being remote, I implored that we were going to create a Volume 2 and it was going to be amazing. Frankly, I knew no better — I was simply riding the wave of a new school year.
Sadly, that bright feeling got buried once the darkness of this school year revealed itself. As we trudged our minds and bodies through the fall and winter months, my lofty plans for compiling Volume 2 got pushed waaaaaay down on the list of priorities. While their writing was therapeutic for me, a soothing balm for the wound created by remote learning, a coping mechanism for interpersonal gulf created between my students and me, I found myself merely surviving for a good part of the year.
Though the idea for Volume 2 got buried and lay dormant for most of the year, it never died. When spring arrived, bringing a COVID vaccine and hope along with it, I caught my second wind. In early April, I slowly began combing through the kids’ writing from the year and drafted a manuscript. I started this process a month later than I did last year and figured it would be a crunch to finish it by June, especially with the cumulative stress of 15 months of remote learning weighing me down. I ended up spending the entire month of May (and part of June) hunched over my computer in order to complete it. The result was beautiful.
The overall structure of the book is the same as last year. Much of the sections are the same; included are the students’ mathographies, metacognituve journals, and math poetry. To spice it up, though, I made some changes.
First, with the guidance of my co-generative dialogue, I scaled up our math poetry assignment to include Fibonacci poetry, free verse poetry, and math raps/spoken word poetry. Last year the only option was haiku. This was a major upgrade because of the ingenuity it fostered amongst the students. I also included a new section for the A Mathematician and Me task from February. I attribute this task to my dear colleagues Stephanie Murdock and Brother DeVeaux, who came up with it early in the year. And after writing many open, antiracist letters to each other last summer and fall, I asked Stephanie to pen the foreword, which she supportively did. The last change was unrelated to writing and instead came in the form of drawings. They were based on an assignment near the end of the year where I asked my students to make a hand-drawn sketch or collage representing their year in math class. Their sketches are sprinkled throughout the book. Despite all the writing they did, sometimes art can say things that words cannot.
In addition to what physically appears in the book, what I came to appreciate about this anthology in its second iteration is the collaborative nature of it. It is a joint effort between my students and me. I compile it, yes, but my students do the heavy lifting with their writing. All but a few of my Regents-bound students are included in it and, this year, one student even helped design the cover. In my eyes, this all amounts to us producing something together. It’s communal, symbiotic. It’s their voices, but our song. In this way, Mathematical Voices embodies the decentering of authority and the flattening of hierarchies in academic contexts, which includes the pages of a book. It’s a co-created solution that bows emphatically to our collective humanity and shared responsibility we have to learn from each other and grow. I am proud of this.
In a school year filled with relationships built around Zoom, virtual handshakes, and all things Google Classroom, creating a physical book seems strange. All the work that my students submitted this year was digital, but yet here is a physical manifestation of their mathematical selves. Unlike everything else from the year, you can hold it. You can touch it. You can pick it up and give it to a friend. You can read it without straining your eyes. Viewed from the perspective of a mathematical function, this year’s inputs should not have yielded this particular output. There is great deal of symbolism in this paradox that I have yet to fully wrap my head around, but do greatly appreciate. Thankfully, unlike last year, I was able to mail each of my students a copy of our book.
When thinking about last year and Volume 1, what I realize is that this year it wasn’t just about lifting up, validating, and publicly circulating my students’ math writing, it was also about finding a way to document this once-in-a-lifetime school year. The book strives to capture our persistence and refusal to let remote learning win. In many ways, the reflections and other writings function as a mathematical time capsule for me and my students. By bounding their thinking and printing their perspective again, I hope this edition serves to chronicle a most unique school year in a most unique way: through mathematics.
In the end, despite not being able to share a physical space with my students and feeling estranged from teaching and learning, my only hope is that Mathematical Voices, Volume 2 can serve as a humble reminder – at least to myself – that my students were not mere screen names or profile pictures this year. They were humans. Behind the screen and on the other side of that email was a young person. A young person with a story. A young person with thoughts, feelings, beliefs, ideas, struggles, and triumphs. A young person, who, in many ways, I’ll never know. By the time they get to see their name on those pages, our paths, both mathematical and otherwise, will have diverged. With our humble book, which represents our final attempt to repossess a school year co-opted by COVID-19, my only wish is that it honors them in a way that I was never able to on Zoom.