Freedom Mathematicians: Storytelling Can Make It Happen

When we say films are timeless, we generally are speaking to their lasting value in terms of how great and universal the story is, with messages that transcend time, and have little conflict left to resolve.

All of us wish we could say a movie like Freedom Writers(2007), based on the true story of the teacher Erin Gruwell and the over 100 students she taught to use their own words/writing to change themselves and the world, is now out of date.

Racism never has gone out of date. In fact, this movie’s “time” has never been more important than now. But, the story of Erin Gruwell showed how students could be empowered by their own stories, and use their imagination and writing talents to bring power to their lives. A similar trajectory of hope has always been lying in wait with mathematics. Sadly and ironically, mathematics has had the opposite effect for many students — especially black students. It has been a gatekeeper. It has been a place of reinforcing bias and prejudice. It has been a place of racism. Which has a level of tragedy that would rival any Shakespearean play. You can measure the freedom of society and the individual by the mathematics that it has access to.

Mathematics was made racist by humans. And, as such, only humans can now make it anti-racist. Which really means returning mathematics in its pristine form of beauty and wonder to everyone.

That is why we are in the era of rehumanizing mathematics.

We are also in the era of storytelling.

Last year, I was invited by Mike Flynn, who is Director of Math Programs at Mount Holyoke, to be on the Conference Committee for NCTM Annual 2022 in Los Angeles. I was honored by the invitation, and eagerly accepted. One of the other Committee members, Chanda Garrison, who is a teacher in Bahrain, connected with me a month ago. She, like myself, have been smitten with storytelling for a while now. She shared with me an activity she did with her students just recently.

She asked them to make Word Art Walls that only had the phrase Story of ____. Below are some of the creations of the students.

The words speak for themselves…

One of the things we discussed about stories, especially of our students, is that they are not obligated to be told. We have to earn the trust of students to hear them. The current transaction fee sits at about us giving a mile to get an inch from our students. If you have taught students from the most marginalized socio-economic backgrounds, you will recognize this trust conversion.

Stories don’t just carry information. Stories carry energy. That energy is emotion. Changes to math education that have value cannot and will not occur if they don’t directly flow through stories like the ones above.

The stories of our students are the first ones we have to seek. Not seeking them is a guarantee that the mathematics that is intended to arrive to them does not. Racism in math education has festered because the delivery of it has been anything but human. It has been woefully inert. And, the warnings of offering such education was explicitly given around 100 years ago.

Being inert. Being unemotional. Being disconnected. Mathematics, having exactly zero of those qualities, has suffered with such machinery. Which means, students have suffered at the cold hands of mathematics.

Mathematics needs its freedom back. In unison, we also need to listen and absorb the stories of students in our class. Maybe there is a place for the freedom of mathematics to meet with the freedom of our students to create more emotionally healthy and vibrant lives.

The only conduit for that is storytelling. Nothing else can do that.

Nothing else should do that.

Author of Pi of Life: The Hidden Happiness of Mathematics and Co-Author of Math Recess: Playful Learning in the Age of Disruption. Speaker. Amplify and Mathigon