Writing as Inspiration in Math Class

Using the power of words to explore math content, careers, and self-reflection

By: Alessandra King

Reading and writing are powerful learning tools that can be used effectively in the math classroom to draw connections between mathematics and its application to the other school disciplines and the real world. Projects like those described in my previous article, "Integrating Global Education in the Middle School Math Classroom," can foster quantitative literacy, hone analytical and critical thinking abilities, and encourage reading facts, news, and information in a more reasoned and methodical way—skills that are necessary to raise competent, positive, productive citizens.

The power of words can be harnessed to benefit mathematics education in other ways, as well, such as to fight the stereotype threat. The stereotype threat is defined as a situation in which individuals are at risk of confirming negative stereotypes about their racial, ethnic, gender, or cultural group. Research has shown that the stereotype threat also contributes to lower performance among women in math and science.

So we chose International Women's Day (March 8) to celebrate the accomplishments of women mathematicians using a page of Plus magazine with some of the best articles, podcasts, videos, and interviews that have been written by, about, or with major input from female mathematicians and physicists.

I set up a blog with Edublogs that explained the simple guidelines of the project and looked on as my students chose one item from the list, described its content and their own responses, and blogged about it. Here are some of their posts. (Edublogs, like other blogging tools for education, allows you to choose settings and privacy degrees as well as different levels of monitoring students' posts.)

Role models and inspirational stories can provide strong support and motivation in the study of mathematics—and here again, writing can be put to good use. Every year I ask my students to interview a contemporary woman engaged in a mathematics career then write an essay based on their interview. If both the interviewee and the student agree, the essay is submitted to the essay contest organized annually by the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM). In class we discuss the guidelines for the project and we brainstorm questions. More importantly, however, it is in our classroom conversation that we find out how mathematics is entwined in innumerable professions, not just the standard ones that immediately come to mind.

Over the years my students have interviewed women from all walks of life, from nurses and pediatricians to fashion designers, bankers, actuaries, business owners, app creators, techies, economists, stock exchange traders, genetic counselors, software developers, infectious disease researchers, political statisticians, lawyers, EPA environmentalists, engineers, accountants, photographers, epidemiologists, neuro/computer scientists, econometricians, realtors, and yes, also math and computer science professors and teachers. Some of these women have achieved their dreams at great personal cost; others had to overcome difficulties, biases, unexpected challenges; all speak of perseverance, grit, dedication, "sticking to it." The heartfelt and often wise advice they share is authentic and therefore meaningful for the students. Find some students' essays in this student-created website called Inspirations, and others on the AWM website.

Finally, writing is a great way to get students' feedback on a variety of topics, for instance on a particular project I have asked them to do, especially if it is a new project. I usually give the students a series of questions or prompts that relate to the various aspects of the project as a self-reflection exercise. Their thoughts allow me to gauge the impact of the activity and develop improvements; at the same time the students feel they have a voice, and their feedback is useful and important.

Self-reflection in which the students express their thoughts in paragraphs is much more helpful for me than when they circle numbers to respond to questions. This way students can express their opinions more clearly and reveal their attitudes, anxieties and joys, difficulties and successes, concerns and expectations, and become more engaged in their own learning and more involved with the running and managing of math class. I find these self-reflections particularly useful at student-parent-teacher conference time. An exercise in metacognition, this type of writing also opens communications, strengthens the student-teacher relationship, and builds trust.

As school schedules and curricula are ever more crowded, class time becomes a crucial commodity. Projects like those described here are particularly useful for math educators because they are low investment in terms of class time. The emphasis on creativity, initiative, inquiry, exploration, independent work, extensive reading and research—all features of enriching tasks—produces high return in terms of interest and excitement for mathematics. Furthermore, they appeal to a wider pool of learners and may attract students who consider themselves more readers and writers than mathematicians.

Giving students choice and agency encourages them to take ownership of their own learning. My students responded enthusiastically to these undertakings, and enjoyed sharing them with their families—who were appreciative of the final products—and with the rest of the school community.

Alessandra King is a mathematics teacher and middle school mathematics coordinator for Holton-Arms School, an independent school for girls in grades 3-12 in Bethesda, Maryland.

Published January 2019.

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