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.” I have thought a lot about how I could incorporate storytelling into my teaching since I started in mathematics education seven years ago. My struggle has been to find a comfortable entry point.

I have tried a few different things with some success. For example, a couple years ago I repurposed an old world map that our geography teacher was going to throw out. I posted a variety of pictures of historical figures from mathematics like Brahmagupta, Al-Khwarizmi, and Euclid with little notes below about their contributions to mathematical thinking.

This was hung 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.

Looking to Go Deeper

What I have been looking for is 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. I was intrigued by this invitation to dig deeply into the idea of storytelling. I value curiosity, wonder, and critical and creative thinking, and felt this could add a lot to my instruction. His proposition was that in order to create vibrant classrooms we need to find an intersection of us (teacher), them (students), and math.

After this webinar, my goal was to examine some resources that he shared to see what I could bring into my classroom. Mr. Singh shared about Jonathan J. Crabtree an expert in ancient Indian mathematics. In researching his materials I came across some things that I would like to implement in my classroom.

Clues from Ancient Indian Mathematics

There are variety of Indian mathamteical concepts that I have been exploring in this link. In this extended slide deck, he walks you through some ideas about operations and integers. I was able to identify a comfortable entry point to use storytelling when covering this 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.

What I am seeing is a carry over from their earlier math classes in which they are confusing the idea of applying the rules of operations using negative numbers. 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). By 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.

I look forward to workshoping this idea in more detail as it has opened up my eyes to the potential power of storytelling and historical origins when teaching mathematical concepts.

Quadratics and the Babylonians

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 I can place that human experience of managing land ownership and transfer at the center of the learning. An essential question couldd be “How can completing the square be used to solve a human problem.

My Own Story and Experience

Exploring these concepts has taken me back to my own exposure to mathematics when I was younger. My dad used to share with me how the Greeks calculated the circumference of the earth. Or the relationship between pi and the circumference of a circle. Or how gravity was discovered.

It was those storytelling experinces that got me so interested in mathematics in the first place. My dad was tapping into my curiosity. He was using storytelling to describe a human problem and how there was a very real human element to solving this problem.

The idea of pi was humanized. This made me feel a belonging not only the mathematical concept but to history as well. 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?

My goal is to bring that joy and curiosity into my classroom for my students to experience as well.

Thank You Sunil Singh

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.

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