Category Archives: Social Curriculum

What Does A Mathematician Look Like?

One of the more important parts of my job as a math teacher is to empower my students. For me, this means that I want them to feel confident when they are applying a technique that we have worked on and practiced together and I want them to feel able to cope with a novel problem.  I want them to feel powerful when they rise to grapple with something new, and I want them to see the potential of a mathematician’s identity in themselves. Social and academic identities are intertwined, and it is important that they believe that they can do mathematics and that they can envision themselves as mathematicians. But when I’ve asked students to describe what a mathematician looks like, or to draw a mathematician, their drawings almost always share similar traits: white and male (…also glasses for some reason).
I have been inspired by a number of people working to revise this reflex. Women and people of color have historically been underrepresented in math, and I believe that seeing role models who have been successful is one way to level the field. As a math teacher, I am uniquely positioned to speak loudly and visibly – and while the stereotypes are still real and powerful – today, it is really not hard to find examples if you are willing to look. Here are a just a few projects I know of, which have been inspiring to me:

Here are some young ladies who know what makes a hero!

Changing this paradigm is slow work. Euler is awesome. So is Einstein. So is Gauss. This project does not take away from that. Their legacy is not in danger. But we need to be conscious and deliberate and public in showing examples that might look different than the ones that are all too automatic.

Here are some of my posters in case you’d like them. Send a note or let me know in the comments below if you have more ideas to further this cause.

What Does a Mathematician Look Like Posters

MTBoS 2017 Soft Skills: My Grade 8 Exit Trip

Here is an excerpt from something I read to students before we get on the bus to leave for our end of middle school overnight trip.  It comes from Joe Ehrmann, a former NFL football star and volunteer coach for the Gilman high school football team .  This comes from the book Season of Life, which I originally read about at Delancey Place.

” ‘What is our job?’ Biff asked on behalf of himself, Joe, and the eight other assistant coaches.

” ‘To love us,’ most of the boys yelled back. The older boys had already been through this routine more than enough times to know the proper answer. The younger boys, new to Gilman football, would soon catch on.

” ‘And what is your job?’ Biff shot back.

‘To love each other,’ the boys responded. “

This post was written in response to Sam Shah’s week 2 mission from the 2017 MTBoS Blogging Initiative: #MTBoSBlogsplosion (mtbos stands for math-twitter-blog-o-sphere). Sam suggested that we focus this week on “soft skills” – the things that we do to help kids grow that aren’t necessarily directly teaching math.  I’ve written here about an overnight trip that I organize at the end of the grade 8 year, including some specifics of the activities that we do to help bring us together.

I believe that as a teacher, helping kids to be confident, and to care about and respect each other is equal in importance to any math skills.  I try to design many lessons to provide opportunities for both of these things – a balance between problem solving, individual reflection, and social behaviors.  These are typically not at odds with each other – teaching problem solving and math skill building does help to boost confidence, and opens more doors for a whole student, however I try to be deliberate about also choreographing social opportunities.  I also include lots of small things in our classroom routines that are there just to build relationships – things which are not specifically math, but which are directed at helping kids to understand how to treat each other, and how to be self-fulfilled, and how to reach their “personal best.”  The Grade 8 exit trip is designed with this in mind.

I am deliberate about using the words field “work” rather than field “trips” when I am off campus with students.  This language makes it clear that we are not passive observers, but instead that we are purposeful in our activities.  I tried to design this trip with this in mind, and had to articulate what I want students to get out of this trip:

  • I want to mark the end of middle school, and entrance to high school as an important benchmark.  This is a big deal for students, and I want to honor this.
  • We should make sure to look back.  They should have some opportunities to reflect on their time as middle schoolers, and to celebrate their personal successes, and the successes of their peers.
  • We should make sure to look forward.  What are they looking forward to?  What fears do they have?
  • We should make opportunities for them to showcase their content skills – writing, performing, problem solving.
  • We should showcase that we value students as whole people – young adults who have idiosyncratic strengths.
  • We should have fun so we have a positive framework to look back on.

We start the day by gathering around a metal can.  Students are given a slip of paper, and asked to write down something that they want to leave behind from middle school.  I tell kids that the move to High School is an opportunity to re-invent yourself, and that we all have things that we want to leave behind and change about ourselves or about our feelings toward some others.  We then toss our slips into the can, and set them on fire – metaphorically “burning our baggage.”  While we are in our circle around the baggage can, I read the rest of the anecdote quoted above to the group.  The message is that whatever ideas we have about each other, we can also find positives, and for this trip, we set aside any issues, and focus on loving each other, and showing that love to each other.

Next, we all draw names from a hat, which contains everyone’s name from the class.  During the bus ride, students are asked to think of something that they appreciate about the person whose name they have drawn.  When we get off of the bus, we begin with an “appreciation circle” where students are asked to share these acknowledgements of their peers.  Our next task is a hike.  I like to find a place where we have to climb up a trail to get to the top of a mountain.   We choose a hike that is as difficult as we feel we can manage for our least in-shape student (or teacher chaperone).  This gives us a metaphor to discuss when we get to the summit.  How climbing the mountain felt like a big deal, and there was complaining, but that we felt accomplished after we got to the top, and about how we helped each other to make it all the way there.  We make some explicit parallels to their middle school experience here, and then we have our second appreciation circle, where students are asked to reciprocate the appreciation that they received at the base of the hike.

After a snack, students are asked to write a short story in their journals, using the gathered group as the characters in their story.  The story includes a favorite memory from middle school,  a fear about High School, and something that they’re looking forward to in High School.  These always manage to include some of the inside jokes of the group, and highlight some of the idiosyncrasies that we love about each other.  We share back some of these, and then have a late lunch.  I always make sure to prepare some of the food for lunch.  Even if I just make a fruit salad or something, this is how we show love in my family – by feeding each other.  I let students know that this is one way that I am letting them know that I love them.

We give the kids some free time after we get to our hotel before dinner, and finish the evening with some problem solving tasks and reflection.  On day 2, we choose a site and organize some drama and analytical Social Studies activities around where we are.  After lunch, and before heading back to school, we include a closing circle where we reflect on the trip, on our time together, and on what lies ahead.

Preparing to do a Shakespeare reading in an ancient amphitheater!

In considering my students, I am most proud of those who leave my class having gained respect for themselves and for each other, and demonstrate this respect.  This does often go hand in hand with gaining confidence as problem solvers or as math thinkers, but I admit that I have had students who have totally blown it as math students (one or two who have even failed my class), but who still come to have lunch with me sometimes.  I still find some success in having built relationships, and I hope that maybe they’ll learn some math later when they’re ready.