Mathematical Storytelling

I participated in a webinar this afternoon led by mathematics educator Sunil Singh titled “Using Math History and Storytelling to Invite Equity Into Our Classrooms”. Since I started in mathematics education some seven years ago I’ve thought a lot about how I could incorporate this idea into my teaching, but I have struggled to find a comfortable entry point. Yes, I’ve tried a few different things. For example, a couple years ago I took an old world map that our geography teacher was going to throw out and pasted on a bunch of pictures of historical figures from mathematics like Brahmagupta, Al-Khwarizmi, and Euclid with little notes below about their contributions to mathematical thinking. I hung this up outside my classroom along with some pictures of other important mathematicians around my classroom. Those have been good conversation starters for some curious students who happen to notice, and an opportunity for some storytelling around the human part of mathematics.

But what I have been looking for though was a way to connect this to the content that we are covering in the Algebra classroom. Mr. Singh shared the following progression on the impact of history and storytelling: storytelling -> humanization -> belonging -> curiosity. As a teacher who values curiosity, wonder, critical and creative thinking, this was an intriguing invitation to dig deeply into this ideas of storytelling. He also shared that in order to create vibrant classrooms we need to find an intersection of us (teacher), them (students) and math.

So after this webinar I set out to examine some resources he shared to see what I could uncover to bring into my classroom. One person Mr. Singh mentioned is Jonathan J. Crabtree who does lots of work around incorporating ancient Indian mathematics into the current times. In researching his materials I came across some interesting things that I am looking forward to implementing. Here is one resource I would like to point to: It’s a pretty long slide deck, but he walks you through some pretty basic yet revealing ideas behind operations and the integers. And what I am able to glean from this is that there is potentially a comfortable entry point for an element of storytelling when covering content.

The example that came to mind is when solving one- and two-step equations. Let’s take 2x-7=11 for example. When having to “undo” subtraction I find many students will try to “add a negative”, ie do “+ -7” to both sides and come up with 2x=4 and then x=2. Obviously, there is some carryover from their earlier math classes in which the idea of applying the rules of operations using negative numbers is getting jumbled up. I am thinking that this would be a great place to do a short lesson on Brahmagupta’s concept of negative and positive integers (see slides 71 and 72 from the above link from Crabtree). My instincts tell me that attaching a human storytelling element to the concept would have more impact than trying to repeat the abstract explanation that obviously didn’t work for that student before when the concept was first introduced at age 11 or 12.

In my Algebra class, we have just finished the first part of the text that covers linear equations so I may have to workshop this idea in more detail for next year. But what it has done is opened up my eyes to the potential power of storytelling and historical origins when teaching mathematical concepts. Looking forward to our unit on solving quadratic equations I will be building out a lesson I have done on completing the square in which I share how this was first developed by the Babylonians when calculating land divisions.

In this case, rather than just mention in passing that the idea of completing the square was first used many centuries ago, I would like to place that human experience at the center of the learning. My goal is to emphasize that the entire reason that we have this concept of completing the square was that humans found themselves up against a very real human problem that required a very real human solution. I’ll make a note to return to this with a blog post in the future when I arrive at that lesson.

I am very grateful for Sunil Singh to have started this discussion and offered his webinar. I am hopeful that more teachers of mathematics take his ideas to heart and are looking at their own ways of bringing this approach to teaching into their classroom.

It took me back to my own days when I was younger when my dad shared with me how the Greeks calculated the circumference of the earth. It was those ideas that got me so interested in mathematics in the first place. Why? I think because it tapped into my curiosity. My dad used storytelling to describe the human problem at hand and how there was a very real human element to solving this problem. This humanized the idea of pi, and the circumference of a circle. This made me feel a belonging to not only this mathematical concept, but history as well. And from there it tapped into my curiosity. How did they know the value of pi? How did we get a more accurate calculation of the circumference of the earth? How did we calculate the circumference of the moon? And I want to bring that joy into my classroom for my students to experience as well.

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