Current & Future Plans re: Math Art Challenge

The Math Art Challenge has been on hiatus for about a week now. Mostly because it’s jarring to see folk happily engaging in math art while protestors are getting arrested. I couldn’t conscionably post things about the Hilbert curve, knowing it would divert time and energy that we need focused elsewhere.

I am keenly aware that a lot of white educators are doing more harm than good right now. Often because we’re moving too fast in an attempt to assuage guilty feelings that are hard to sit with. I am trying to let myself sit with and consider those feelings while also making sure that I am taking thoughtful, productive action and planning to be in this for the long haul. Because we need to be here beyond this week. Especially white folk. Especially white educators.

I’m just now starting “summer”, and I want my time this summer to be spent thoughtfully planning for how I can do better, and how I can help support other educators to do better this fall. As I’m considering what I can contribute to the dismantling of white supremacy, specifically that within schools, right now, I’m trying to hold these things in my mind: 

  • I am not an expert in community organizing, nor in the dismantling of police brutality. I can listen to, support, and lift up the voices of those who are. 
  • I am growing my expertise in math education, and how math art can be used in math class to refocus education on patience, deep thinking, and connection making. 
  • Whiteness pervades math curricula and the structure of math classes in America, and it must be dismantled. 
  • Math classrooms are deeply segregated. Both the students that comprise them, and the way curriculum is presented. If we are to change that, I believe the fundamental structure of math classes has to change. 
  • Many of the followers of the #mathartchallenge are white educators. It is not lost on me that when I post pretty math art, it gets many likes, while posts about #BlackTransLivesMatter gets crickets. I can marry the two better so that when you come to me for math art, you also are challenged to consider how you are upholding or dismantling white supremacy. 
  • Given COVID-19, there has never been an easier time for us to change what math class looks like. We already know that the fall will be different. Let’s seize on that. 

The whole impetus for the #MathArtChallenge was a desperate need to stay in touch with students after we left the school building. I knew worksheets and traditional lessons would not engage them, but that math art could, and it could do so in a meaningful way. Like pretty much everything else that happened this spring, the MathArtChallenge was put together haphazardly, without a lot of deep thought going into the specific outcomes nor goals beyond getting students to engage somehow in mathematical thinking from afar. 

I know many teachers are doing great work in their classes, and some people may really have broken out of the factory model of education, but too many math classes (including mine) are still primarily focused on getting through a list of standards rather than championing our student’s brilliance and giving them space to direct more of their own learning.

Considering it now, had I thoughtfully planned from the beginning, here are the goals I’d like to see accomplished by the #mathartchallenge, all of which are aimed at disrupting the factory model of education.

  1. Create a bank of resources, that anyone, but teachers specifically, can draw on, to inspire creative mathematical thought. Aware that teachers commonly only use resources directly connected to their curriculum, I will do my best to go back and tag each of the Math Art Challenges with content standards. I understand that ease of use will make the resource more likely to be used. I also know that simply by virtue of being art, math art opens possibilities for students to creatively explore mathematically. That is simply less true (if at all) of traditional standards-based learning. 
  2. Research and share the historical context for as many #mathartchallenge-s that I can. If we’re to decolonize the curriculum, we have to stop pretending that all math comes from Europe and that the only mathematical thinkers worthy of celebrating are old white dead men. That takes active, intentional work and planning. To that end, I’m committing to also spending much of my summer updating, revising and adding to the Mathematicians Project. With respect to the #mathartchallenge, that will also mean doing things like connecting the Islamic geometry challenges to actual mosques where the original designs were found. Highlighting mathematicians, specifically non-white mathematicians, who do work related to each challenge. We need to connect math to history. And specifically to the history that has so long been denied Black and Brown students. The history that centers the brilliance of their ancestry. 
  3. Encourage patient, slow thinking in classrooms. Art takes a while. That’s a huge benefit. The factory model of education has not worked for way too many students, and it doesn’t take much thinking to know why. When I seek to learn a new math concept, I mentally prepare to take enormous amounts of time to deeply engage. I give myself room to explore paths that may very well take lots of time and lead to dead ends. I don’t place a schedule on when I must have reached mastery. Though I get why people create and use pacing guides, if we’re to center math class on actual mathematical thinking and on our student’s humanity, we need to throw those in the trash heap. Yes, definitely, some standards will have to go. Tough. We should be focused on teaching students how to learn, not making sure they know every math concept we can cram in. If they know how to learn, they can teach themselves whatever concept they didn’t get in school when it becomes necessary for them. I truly believe this shift makes math class more welcoming and reflective of what math actually is. 
  4. Plan for necessary reflection and connection making. I have, thus far, utterly failed at this, trusting that in the process of creation, we end up naturally reflecting and making connections. But if we’re to effectively use math art not just as a healing source (though that is a wonderful and necessary thing that art can provide), we need to be intentional in the ways we’ll ask students to process their creations. To this end, I plan to spend time this summer going back to formulate reflection questions that can be used broadly, for any #mathartchallenge-s, and specifically, to be used for individual ones. 

I want to be clear that I understand that planning to disrupt a factory model of education is not going to happen overnight, nor am I the first to encourage or work toward it, nor does this work absolve me from doing work elsewhere: supporting protests, engaging politically, being intentional with how and where I spend money.

I am teaching two new-to-me classes next year, and I already hear voices in my head:

“You still have to prep them for the test”

“How will your co-workers react?”

“What will the parents say?”

“You need to hit all the chapters.”

I want to be clear. Those voices are the ingrained white supremacy that pervades education. I firmly believe that slow, deep mathematical thinking, as opposed to a factory model, will benefit students. So I need to research and prepare to teach this way, and to address these voices, focusing primarily on my student’s brilliance and humanity. 

This summer, I do plan to finish out the 100 Math Art Challenges. They are not likely to come out one per day, because I hope to actually take the time that summer affords me to do more intentional research. I hope to have each of the coming challenges rooted in some sort of larger context, whether that is through connection to a non-white mathematician working in a related field or through historical connections. 

As with anything, collaborative work is stronger than individual work. If you are interested in helping me with this, I would love to collaborate. I am also keenly aware that my plans may need to change as I progress through this. Push back on any and all of this is welcome, especially if it centers student learning and making math class more equitable for students. 



Author: Ms. P

Math Teacher in Minneapolis, MN.

2 thoughts on “Current & Future Plans re: Math Art Challenge”

  1. I’m new to #mathartchallenge but found my way here from twitter. Your post reminded me of some of creatively social-justice oriented and community-based curricular projects at City Digits: Lucky Lotto:; if you haven’t seen it already.

    I was struck at the nexus of community-rooted teaching (having students study their own communities!) as well as the justice-orientation in teaching about inequity.


  2. Thank you for this thoughtful reflection on working to dismantle both the factory model of education and white-centeredness that created it. I teach STEM Lab PK through 5th grade and I am fortunate to be largely insulated from the factory model of teaching. There is no test, or even state mandated curriculum and standards, for what I teach, and I have the freedom from my administration to pretty much do what I want. The insulation is somewhat isolating however because the rest of the teachers on my campus are heavily wrapped up in that model. I do what I can to disrupt the test prep model of teaching and I make a conscious effort to introduce my students to scientists and mathematicians who are not white dudes. I know that there is more I could be doing, and what that might be has been weighing on my mind for a while, but even more heavily these past couple of weeks.

    Speaking as a person who had only negative experiences with math all through my K-12 career, and who did not learn to love math until they started teaching it to 2nd graders and tried to make sure their experiences did not mirror mine, I do not know what help I might be able to offer to your proposed project. However, I would definitely like to help in any way that I can.


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