What I Learned about My Students

  • What I Learned about My Students

    By Annie Perkins, posted October 11, 2016 —

    One of the greatest benefits I found doing the Mathematician Project involved what my students revealed about themselves. Simply by asking my students who they wanted to learn about, I learned information about them that I had not yet picked up on. They made some immediate and unsurprising mathematician requests: “African-American,” “female,” and “Mexican.” They also made some unexpected requests. “El Salvadorian” led to a discussion of one student’s family. “Deaf” brought up a passion for American Sign Language (ASL) that I didn’t know about. Students made requests like “Blasian people (mixed with Asian and black like me),” “Light-skinned black with curly hair,” “I just want to hear about more women,” and the very enthusiastic “LGBTQ mathematicians! Nonbinary and trans mathematicians!” (This last response was written by one student in all caps.) My students started talking more openly with me about their lives and what mattered to them.

    Most presentations ended up being a fun thing we did that day, but occasionally a student would get emotional. When I made a presentation about a trans mathematician, one student who was yet unsure how they identified spoke up to say (of the trans mathematician), “They’re a really good person.” It was clear how deeply affecting it had been to see a successful mathematician with whom this student could identify.

    Being curious about more than surface reactions, I periodically surveyed my students to ask how they felt about the project. I freely admit it; some students replied with “Boring” or “At least we’re not doing math,” but the vast majority responded with thoughtful comments:

    •     “I like it. I hope we keep doing it in the future.”

    •     “We should do them twice a week because I know that there are a lot more and this is our last year to learn about them.”

    •     “I think you should do this every year until you stop teaching.”

    •     “Not to be racist but . . . I only like when a black person is being presented, because not a lot of people believe that blacks are smart or not even think that a black person can be a mathematician. Thank u.”

    After several months of the project, I asked students to present themselves as mathematicians. The instructions were for students to create a “slide” (out of card stock) of themselves as a mathematician, sharing what they cared about most (it could be anything) and what their mathematical specialty was. We took several days to complete the project. While students were coloring or adding glitter to their slide, I roamed the room, having one-on-one conversations with students about their mathematical specialties. There were a great many students who felt that they didn’t have one, and I was really glad I took the time to sit down and have these discussions. I encouraged students to think of their specialty as something they felt accomplished in or something they were proud they understood after working on for a long time. Those conversations revealed a lot about how my students saw themselves as mathematicians; it gave me a chance to affirm to them that I did believe that they were capable. They saw me placing value on their self-respect.

    I am as guilty as the next math teacher for claiming that our subject makes it difficult to have conversations that teach us about our students. I am pleased to say that this project has helped me overcome that. It has made my job more enjoyable and my relationships with students better.

    Perkins MTMS Au Pic

    Annie Perkins teaches math in Minneapolis, Minnesota. For the past three years, she has taught seventh- and eighth-grade math at Lake Nokomis Community School–Keewaydin. This year she will be teaching tenth grade at Southwest High School. She blogs at arbitrarilyclose.com, and you can reach her on twitter @anniekperkins.