Reflections on my students’ math penpal experience

You’re lucky to overcome your weaknesses, especially one so fundamental. Mine is so hard to overcome despite how easy it seems. Little mistakes or a lack of understanding can shift a problem entirely. It’s been my issue for a long time and basically became a habit. Anyways, one of the weaknesses I’ve successfully overcome is fractions. Besides the occasional mix up, I’m golden.

Some of my favorite topics in math would be the classics. I’m thinking of things like basic arithmetic. Why? Because they are not as complicated as the present lessons. Despite the lessons taking more of time, it takes up a lot of space in my precious books. Those pages can be filled with stories or fan-fiction, not factoring or distributing. Still, I’ll take distribution any day, factoring may seem easy but there’s so many different types that I can’t keep up. No. Just no.

One of my students (in a letter to her math penpal)

Last August, before the school year began, I wrote a blogpost on the notion of mathematical penpals. It was essentially a public plea to see if anyone was interested in trying out the idea with me. My thinking was that we’d come together, have our students write mathematically-themed letters to each other throughout the year, and possibly have them meet on Zoom at the end of the year. If you’ve read wonderful book Mathematics for Human Flourishing by Francis Su, I imagined our the students’ letters would be, in spirit, like the ones between Su and Christopher Jackson.

Despite my excitement for the idea, I dampened my expectations. We were in the midst of a pandemic with no vaccine in sight. Teachers everywhere were fastening their seatbelts for a school year unlike any other. The idea math penpaling would have been outlandish even in regular circumstances, let alone the one we found ourselves in. I hit publish on the post and waited.

How many people responded to my plea? A heartwarming — and surprising — 17.

I emailed everyone to see if we could establish partnerships. Most teachers were from the northeast, but there were a few from places like Illinois and Minnesota. Thankfully, Sarah Furman and I found common ground in terms of what and who we teach and decided to give it a go. Sarah teaches Algebra 2 in upstate Michigan and the differences between our students (e.g. race, geography) was a huge draw for us. She’s a 21-year vet who is thoughtful, reflective, and eager.

We had plans for the students to write each other every 4-6 weeks. That didn’t happen. The logistics of an unpredictable school year kept us guessing and caused longer-than-expected gaps between letters. We were in-person one week and remote the next. Our students were all over the place. So were we. In all, our students ended up writing two letters to their penpal. I’m very proud of this.

And the actual exchange of the letters? How did that work? After pairing the students up, we hoped that the letters could be handwritten and mailed to each other, just like old-school penpal letters are. That also didn’t happen. Who was I kidding?

The letters turned out to be a combination of handwritten and typed correspondences. Students who hand-wrote their letters scanned them and sent them to us. Students who typed it shared it with us. Because of the remote learning mess we found ourselves in, we didn’t even attempt to mail them. Instead, we just dropped them in a shared Google folder and called it a day. The other person retrieved the letters and distributed them to their students. It worked out well.

Outside of logistics, one of the more interesting challenges about the experience was figuring out engaging and worthwhile prompts for the students to respond to in their letters — especially when it comes to mathematics. Some of the math-themed talking points I threw at the kids included:

• What is your earliest memory of math or learning math?
• How do you learn math best?
• What parts of math are challenging for you?
• What is/was your favorite topic to learn in math? Why?
• Tell your penpal about our A Mathematician and Me assignment. Share your mathematician and why you chose them.

The main goal of this project was to build community between students through letter writing and mathematics. I’m not sure to what extent Sarah and I achieved this, as students may have viewed it as one of the many random things that happened in a crazy year, but it was a lot of fun trying. For what it’s worth, Sarah and I both observed the genuine interest and enthusiasm amongst the students when the letters “arrived” and when it was time to reply. That counts for something, right?

We both agreed to try this again next year. We’re hopeful that the experience will be more meaningful for our students, allow them to write more letters, and just run a lot smoother. I’m looking forward to this and have many wonderings. Like, how might we safely connect our students over social issues and current events? And how might mathematics be a vehicle for this? What about problem solving and problem posing? Could we have students jointly solve problems through their letters? How might students debate mathematics through their writing? Could their letters make it into a future volume of Mathematical Voices?

So many juicy questions to sit on.

A fascinating subplot of this experience is that, in all of our planning and organizing for our kids’ math penpaling this year, I’ve still never seen or spoken to Sarah. It’s strange, but I kind of like it that way. It’s as if she and I have been penpaling about penpaling. It’s fitting. And beautiful.


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