The Stories Behind Math

Not too long ago, the world of mathematics teaching was filled with memorization, relentless practicing of skills, and the idea that all math problems have just one answer. While some of these vibes still exist in some of today’s classrooms, for the most part a shift in instructional practices has started to reshape the way teacher’s teach math and the way student’s learn math. One of these practice shifts has been taking the logical and cold-hearted calculations of math and putting a more human spin on it to make it more relatable to a variety of students. This being done in a multitude of ways, but the most interesting way has been through the use of storytelling. My choice for this week’s reading, “Using storytelling to teach mathematics concepts,”  showcases this pedagogical shift and its success .

“Storytelling appeals to children’s imaginations and emotions and helps make learning more meaningful. When children listen to stories, they create mental images that belong to them, connecting the content to something personally significant.” Now replace the word “children” with the word “people” and read the quote again – the quote still holds true. So how exactly does this apply to a math classroom? 65% of the population are primarily  visual learners and 30% are primarily auditory learners. These two percentages make up 95% of all learners in the world. Lecture alone reaches the 30% auditory learners, and written examples only reach the 65% visual learners. What ties both of these two groups together and strengthens the learning process? Storytelling.

In the article, math teachers used the premise of a fictional tale to teach the idea of counting by ones, tens, and hundreds. Students were given context for this math concept and then provided with an opportunity to replicate the story for themselves to practice the math concept. By engaging with a story that fit the mathematics, students were allowed to create a personal connection with the math. Through these connections, students were more easily able to overcome obstacles in solving similar math problems and also were able to take their thinking to the next level.

Though this article touched on the use of storytelling in an elementary math context, this same idea can be extended to secondary mathematics, too. In my reading of this article, I had a couple of realizations about my own use of storytelling in my middle school math classes. Since my own educational background was in art education, I have always leaned on my degree to support the ways in which I teach mathematics. Much of the way that I introduce new ideas to students is through visuals and stories. To give you an example of this, every year I teach rules for adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing negative numbers through the context of something called “The Integer Game.” Students start by reading a story about two students who play the game. The students in the story are found intensely engaged in trying to beat each other in this game. As the students taunt each other in the story, they reveal their strategies for how they are going to win the game for themselves, which also aids in showcasing how the rules of the game work. Once students have read the story, I ask them to make connections to it on their own, in pairs, and then as a whole group. Every year, students compare their experiences playing card games to this situation, and then I give them the same cards used in the story to play the game in their groups. Since implementing this story and game in my classroom, I have seen a 94% success rate in students’ abilities to add, subtract, multiply, and divide negative numbers as opposed to my previous 78% success.

Much of my instruction follows a similar manner of allowing students to engage in stories with mathematical concepts. However, something I haven’t considered before that I am now considering is how do I get my students to be the ones creating the mathematical stories? I have already started to answer this question a little bit by introducing Flickr to my students. In a previous blog post, I mentioned introducing Flickr as a way for students to post photographs of mathematics happening in the real world around them and writing up a blurb about where the math was found and how it relates. Since doing this, students have been extremely interested in finding the math we do in class in their everyday lives. Since it is an optional assignment, students so far have only posted about 15 pictures, but these photos all have interesting stories attached to them that demonstrate students’ strong understanding of how the math relates to the world. Now I want to make real storytelling assignments that get students to interact with math in this way. This article has inspired me to seek resources that demonstrate digital storytelling specifically in a math classroom, and I hope to within a few weeks design and implement an assessment that lets students do this. What I am currently struggling with is finding the time to do this successfully, and I wonder how much of the time I should be using to teach digital tools to students versus letting them just play and figure it out on their own? I suppose this can only be discovered through trying it out, but it would still be nice to see examples of how other math teachers have done this in their own classrooms. In the meantime, I will continue my search to find out what I can through research and experimentation.

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2 thoughts on “The Stories Behind Math

  1. Wow this is awesome! I love the idea of introducing storytelling in math class. I think if I would have had a teacher like you when I was in school, I probably would have done better in math then I did. I think I’m going to pass on the integer game lesson to the math teacher on my team. Many of our students have been struggling to grasp the concept and this might help. I would love to hear other examples on how you are going to implement storytelling into your classroom. I am teaching STEM this year, and since both subjects are tied together, it would be great to incorporate them as well.

    Thanks for your insight!
    Heather

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Stephanie-

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on using storytelling to teach math. As a foreign language teacher, I understand the importance of storytelling in order to help with vocabulary retention and concept comprehension. However, I have never thought of how it could be incorporated in math. Thanks to your contribution this week, I can really see that storytelling can also be an asset for math teachers. Next time I am helping my 3rd and 4th graders with their homework I will see if a story helps them understand and retain the concepts better.

    Liked by 2 people

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