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Humanizing Mathematics

I’ve written this post for the MTBoS virtual conference on humanizing mathematics.

How do you highlight that the doing of mathematics is a human endeavor?

Thanks to people like Rochelle Gutiérrez and conversations on Twitter, at Math for America, and through MTBoS, I’ve spent the past three years wrapping my head around this idea of mathematics as both a humanizing and dehumanizing endeavor. The greatest challenge has been in figuring out how to share these ideas with my (now former) middle school students. Because many of them saw math as this finished, metallic product, I wanted to highlight that math was an ongoing process, tied up in big things like cultures and institutions but also to local things like human psychology and emotion.

I couldn’t claim to be an expert on the idea of math as a human endeavor, and I really wanted to give my students a chance to reflect on this idea themselves, so I asked them to complete a few assignments where they could share their views on, emotions about, and experiences with mathematics. Especially for middle schoolers, it was important I spent a lot of time just listening to them and letting them open up about their feelings. I like to think that instead of me sharing my ideas about math as a human endeavor, my students and I were co-creating our ideas together.

Below I’ve briefly described some of the assignments I’ve given, but more importantly I’ve shared some of my students’ responses.

  1. Mathographies: These were students’ personal histories with mathematics, in and out of the classroom. They could talk about favorite memories and experiences, least favorite memories, or just general feelings about mathematics. I noticed that for many of them, math and math learning were so closely intertwined it was impossible to tease them apart. In this sense, math as a human endeavor could only be understood by looking at math learning as a human endeavor, and vice versa.

  1. Math Across Cultures: I asked my students to pick any country, culture, or community and write about the similarities and differences between how math is taught and understood in that community compared to how it is taught and understood in our classroom. Students could do book or Internet research and/or interview family members, caregivers, and friends. It was fascinating to read their research findings, but it was just as fascinating to read how they thought about their own mathematical experiences in our classroom.

  1. Open Form Project: I gave them a project with a part where they could do anything they wanted as long as it was math related. It could be anything from sharing their favorite problem to creating a slam poem about math. I was inspired by my college Shakespeare professor who gave us a similar assignment (as long as it was about Shakespeare, of course).

    Most of the assignments ended up being videos or containing photos with identifiers, so I won’t share them here (but OMG the songs they made up…). I will share one illustration, though, which wonderfully summarizes the humanness of mathematics, with all its ups and downs:


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