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“How is this math?”

A Story of the 2020-21 Math Equity Project

Skylar Primm

My Context

I’ve spent the last decade teaching at High Marq Environmental Charter School in Montello, Wisconsin. Our project- and place-based curriculum is interdisciplinary by nature, so though I’m licensed as a science teacher I end up covering a bit of everything. When I earned my mathematics license in 2019, I realized that while I’m an ace at math content, I needed support with math instruction. Enter the Math Equity Project from UW–Madison PLACE, a yearlong cooperative experience I’ve had the honor and pleasure of participating in during the 2020-21 school year.

My Question & My Motivation

At High Marq, our students earn most of their credits through independent research projects on topics of their choice. Math is one of the few exceptions, with most students completing online coursework in the traditional Algebra → Geometry → Algebra 2 sequence we’ve all been stuck with for over a century. My motivations for joining the Math Equity Project were to help my students see math as something more than solving problems on a screen, and to improve their negative math identities (e.g., “I’m bad at math,” “[math] makes [my] head explode”).

With those goals in mind, this year I established an hour of teacher-directed math instruction in our schedule, with each grade level band (6/7/8, 9/10, 11/12) meeting once a week. With a basic structure in place, all I needed was an idea for what to teach them. The answer came during our summer cohort meetings. Following the leads of youcubed and the New York Times, I decided to engage my students in Data Talks. After productive discussions with other MEP participants and facilitators, I refined my driving question to: What happens when Data Talks are used to engage learners?

My Methods

My basic process for Data Talks remained consistent through the school year, with minor tweaks here and there as my students and I got more used to the process.

First, I would display a graph or other data visualization on the board. Sometimes I would provide a bit of context, but usually not. At the beginning, I pulled these from the youcubed and New York Times sites, but after a few months I began using visualizations from the Planetary Health textbook, which gave my students a consistent theme and natural progression each week.

Samples of visualizations used in our Data Talks

Then, I would ask students to answer three questions, in sequence: What do you notice? What do you wonder? What story do you think this data visualization is telling? Importantly, none of these questions require prior knowledge or specific math skills to answer. Thus, the content was accessible even to the math hating students in my classroom. Usually, I would have students think through their answers, and perhaps write them down, before we shared and discussed as a class.

In addition to collecting students’ responses to the Data Talk questions with Google Forms, I surveyed them about their overall opinions on math as a subject at three points, using a simple Jamboard with the question: How do you feel about math, in general? They could place themselves on a linear scale from “I HATE Math” on the left to “I LOVE Math” on the right.

My Students’ Responses

From the very beginning of my Data Talk journey, it was clear that I had struck a nerve with students. When a sixth grader loudly proclaimed that he was wondering “How is this math?”, I knew that my decision to expose students to other aspects of the subject was the correct one. Shortly after that, an older student became extremely angry about the poor design of another visualization. Any time my content evokes that level of passion in students, I know I’m onto something good.

Responses to Earlier Data Talks

  • The data shows life and death of a average person
  • The populations have changed a lot and will probably keep changing in the future.
  • that with more people more stuff
  • we are losing some of the major resources to survive

As students became more used to the process of analyzing a visualization, their responses became more nuanced and showed that they were extrapolating beyond the information provided on screen.

Responses to Later Data Talks

  • CO₂ is related to rising temperatures.
  • I would take away that fires and floods are more dangerous than I thought.
  • that we need to fix this problem
  • That the US produces a lot of carbon, but less than countries like china, but it’s hard to tell unless you know about populations

By the third quarter, students were clearly getting bored with answering the same questions over and over. So, for the fourth quarter, I decided to put them in the creator’s seat, with a new learning target guiding our work: I can apply the data literacy skills we’ve practiced this year to my own independent project work. I then supported students in finding suitable data sources and crafting relevant visualizations based on their research. Their work was impressive, and I’m excited to have opened up a new format for students to share their project work in the future.

Examples of student-created data visualizations

Not only did their skills improve, but my students’ overall opinions about math improved as well, with some following very clear trajectories that they later confirmed were related to our Data Talk work.

Visualization of students’ feelings about math, with three students (D, K, S) highlighted

A few end-of-year quotes from students tell the story well:

  • “I learned that math doesn’t always have to involve equations.”
  • “Mr Primm was able to make math fun again and kept most everyone engaged with what we were doing.”
  • “I grew in math instruction because I have never looked at a graph for so long before.”
  • “I learned to not hate math, i don’t really hate it anymore, i just dislike doing it when it’s difficult. I changed bc i don’t despise math now which is surprising.”

My Takeaways

So, after a year of Data Talks, what are my takeaways? First, Data Talks are a great way to engage students who see themselves as “not math people”. Second, I think my not judging students’ responses gave them space to grow more comfortable sharing their observations and opinions over time. Lastly, we have a duty as math teachers to reveal to students the beauty and wonder of the field beyond the narrow domains of Algebra and Geometry.

That said, Data Talks aren’t a one-size-fits-all solution to disengaged learners. Broadly speaking, students’ feelings about math improved over the year, but some students stayed in that “I HATE Math” realm all year, no matter what I tried. And even for the students who found Data Talks valuable, exploring the same topic became somewhat rote over time, so more variety in our work would be wise when I try this again.

Thanks to the Math Equity Project, I have become much more confident as a math teacher, and my definition of math has expanded as well. I’m also more able to see my students’ math work through an assets-based lens versus a deficits-based one. I will—of course—continue making changes in my own classroom, and it gives me more confidence to experiment knowing that I have this professional community to turn to whenever I have questions or need support.


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