The Mathematical Biography 2.0
Nikos Giannopoulos, 2017 Rhode Island Teacher of the Year
Special Education Teacher
Beacon Charter High School for the Arts
Over the summer of 2016 and previous school year, I had the opportunity to collaborate with my colleagues at Beacon Charter High School for the Arts on our school’s MTSS team. We spent all year working to plan and implement high quality Tier Two Interventions for students who demonstrate significant gaps in their ELA, Math, or Social Emotional competencies. In creating decision rules for which students will enter and exit these interventions, we realized that our students’ needs often exceeded our capacity to serve them in a targeted intervention. It became clear that in order to better serve the needs of all of our students, it was important to re-examine our Tier One instruction practices. While our students excel when it comes to in-class work, communication, and collaboration, some were simply not engaging at such a high level with their independent work outside the classroom. With a sharp focus on student engagement, my colleagues and I made recommendations for low prep, high impact Tier One differentiated instruction techniques to deploy in the upcoming school year - the most important of which is student choice. We challenged our teachers to modify a project or assignment using one of these techniques in order to improve student engagement.
Student engagement comes from a place of ownership over their work and their learning - something that does not come easily when you have not had success in a particular subject area. As a co-teacher of Algebra 2, I have had the distinct pleasure of returning to teach the course I disliked the most in high school. Teaching in a special education inclusive setting, you often have not just the special education students in your class, but also those general education students who have struggled in this particular subject area. In an effort to connect with my students - many of whom do not consider themselves “math people” - I have traditionally assigned a Mathematical Autobiography project asking students to write an essay or sketch a series of storyboard drawings that outlines a practical and personal chronology of their experiences as a math student. I model this assignment detailing my own struggles in math class and sharing with them that with enough hindsight, I realized that the struggles I had in math classes were all part of my learning process and have impacted who I am as a teacher today. This assignment, meant to be a reprieve from the integers and variables of math class was designed to enable thoughtful self expression and foster trust and understanding classroom relationships. Often, this project serves a therapeutic purpose for our students who have had negative experiences in math class. However, in limiting the parameters of acceptable art forms, I realized I was holding some students back - causing them to not engage fully with the assignment thus negating the powerful impact we hoped it would have.
Having had success with open ended homework assignments in the past and knowing the importance of student choice in student engagement, we wanted to increase engagement with the project through increased options. Instead of simply typing an essay or creating storyboards, this year I invited students to express themselves in whatever way that feels most natural to them. Those choosing to do an art piece would draft an Artist’s Statement to explain the relationship of their work to their experiences in math class. At first, the reaction was mixed, but as the deadline approached, I had students approaching me every day before and after class to run ideas by me: “Can I write a short story?”, “Can my sister and I collaborate?”, “How about a painting, or sculpture?”. Already I could sense that this subtle change was going to yield even better results.
Additionally, my co-teacher and I decided to invite the students to present their work to the class, showcasing their creations and giving them an opportunity to understand those students whose experiences do not reflect their own. Right off the bat we were getting new and diverse forms of self-expression: creative writing, drawing, painting, rapping, poetry, photography, animation, filmmaking and more. For the first time since we developed this assignment, we had had finally achieved full participation from all students in the class!
When debriefing the project, our students responded that they loved the opportunity to choose and design how they responded to the assignment. Student choice empowered the students to realize that the work they are creating during their high school career is important and valid. Exhibition of that work helped foster a sense of community among the students who we will be spending the next year teaching. Our experience with this assignment has informed the way we approach projects in the Algebra 2 classroom and our students willingness to express themselves has laid a foundation of trust and respect upon which we will continue to build all year.
Stills from Student Film:
Excerpt from Artist's Statement:
"Growing up I have never been too good at math. I always struggled with it even in elementary school. When I hit junior high, that’s when the real struggle came. But, I will not let my past determine what my future will look like and I am confident that I will be able to succeed in my least favorite subject. I will not let my feelings for arithmetic get in the way of my success."
A Student's Painting:
Excerpt from Artist’s Statement:
“I remember a specific day in first grade. A math problem went entirely over my head. When it said ‘Draw a picture’ to solve the problem, I literally started doodling on my worksheet. Kids around me started to laugh and I felt self conscious about my math ability...It took me a long time to understand that art is an advanced form of mathematics - artists are often outstanding visual mathematicians!”
Photography and Creative Writing:
“Ever since I was introduced to Math we have had a type of ‘I love you, but I'm not ready for a commitment’ and ‘It’s not you, it’s me’ on and off relationship...On one hand, I love Math because it is so logical and you always know there is a right and a wrong, a correct and incorrect. On the other hand, Math is a merciless, arrogant egotist who lacks compassion.... Ultimately, Math has made me stronger and want to prove my uncertainty in myself wrong...It is true that Math and I have our differences, but we have an established agreement of dating without the commitment of labels or getting left behind. Needless to say, our relationship is complicated."