In the world of mathematics education, one name shines brightly as a trailblazer of innovative teaching methods; Jo Boaler. She is a celebrated professor at Stanford University and I had the amazing opportunity to be her student back in 2017 and 2018. Jo Boaler has pioneered a global revolution in math education, challenging traditional norms and inspiring educators worldwide.
This fall, I was honored to be a guest lecturer in her curriculum and instruction class at Stanford's Graduate School of Education to share the realm of my work in creative mathematics with her Masters candidates. Jo Boaler is much more than a professor; she is a visionary who believes in making mathematics accessible, enjoyable, and inclusive for all. Her groundbreaking work has reshaped how we view and teach mathematics, focusing not only on mathematical proficiency but also on nurturing a deep love for the subject.
My Journey - From Student to Creative Mathematician
As I stood before the eager minds of graduate students at Stanford, I couldn't help but reflect on my unique journey, one that encompassed a multitude of roles - from being a student and math teacher to becoming a multidisciplinary artist, fashion designer, entrepreneur, and speaker today. This journey taught me that mathematics could be a bridge between art, technology, and culture.
Empowering Inclusive Mathematics
The core of my lecture at Stanford was centered on empowering mathematics educators with three essential pillars to make math education more inclusive:
• Culturally Responsive Pedagogy
• Mathematical Freedom
• Mathematical Confidence.
1. Culturally Responsive Pedagogy
Understanding the Digital Generation:
The first topic I shared with the graduate students, who will soon become math teachers and researchers was the importance of creating an inclusive math environment based on understanding and embracing the culture of today's high school students. In the age of digital technology and social media, I shared the survey I conducted when I started teaching back in 2018 to delve into my 100+ 9 grade students’ digital habits. The results were nothing short of eye-opening - students spent a staggering 26 hours a week on their phones back then. Delving further, I uncovered that they dedicated approximately 3.7 hours daily to their devices, with Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube reigning as the most-used apps. I am pretty sure these numbers are even higher in today’s post-pandemic world.
Birth of the Instagram Classroom:
These findings fueled my interest in harnessing social media to connect with students on platforms deeply embedded in their culture. The result was the birth of the 'Instagram Classroom,' a private Instagram account I created just for my students back in 2018 that evolved into a dynamic space for sharing math lessons, quizzes, and live sessions. The impact was profound, with 92% of students acknowledging the platform's positive influence on their learning journey.
Gamifying Math Education:
The 'Instagram Classroom' gamified math education by utilizing Instagram's interactive features like polls and stickers. Students could engage with math questions and share their responses to me via direct messages (DMs), earning public shoutouts on the account. This approach breathed new life into math lessons, making them relatable, interactive, and impactful. It allowed us to cover critical topics in the Algebra 1 curriculum, such as solving single-variable equations and modeling two-variable data.
The results were astonishing. While Forbes cites an average engagement rate of 5% on Instagram for accounts with a large following, I consistently received an over 20% engagement rate on my educational Instagram account. Moreover, 92% of students following the teacher account expressed their desire for end-of-year review sessions on the platform, with 98% deeming these sessions exceptionally helpful after taking their final tests.
2. Mathematical Freedom Through Art
Mathematics is often perceived as rigid and intimidating. However, it doesn't have to be. Drawing inspiration from my work as a fashion designer, I shared how I would encourage my high school students to explore complex mathematical concepts through a creative lens.
Unleashing Artistic Expression:
Visual mathematics has the power to level the playing field in the math classroom. Recent studies have shown that “when mathematics classrooms focus on numbers, status differences between students often emerge, to the detriment of classroom culture and learning, with some students stating that work is “easy” or “hard” or announcing they have “finished” after racing through a worksheet. But when the same content is taught visually, it is our experience that the status differences that so often beleaguer mathematics classrooms, disappear.” (Boaler et al. 2016).
The Transformational Power of Art
My journey as a fashion designer, using mathematical equations to create textiles, inspired my approach to teaching math. I urged students to embark on creative mathematical journeys where they become the architects of their mathematical artistry.
a. Designing Stripes with Single Variable Equations
I shared how, in Algebra 1, my students had the opportunity to learn about slope and parallel lines by designing stripes using single-variable equations. This project encouraged them to think critically about mathematical concepts while creating visually stunning designs. Below is an animation I showed them in class to make a connection between the math work they were doing and the real world, inspired by our Lines print.
b. Parent Graph Transformations:
I shared how, in Algebra 2, my high school students would explore various function families such as linear, quadratic, or absolute value functions by designing coloring books using parent graph transformations. Our math classroom would transform into an art gallery, allowing students to showcase their mathematical art and express themselves using mathematical language. This creative approach was inspired by my work at DIARRABLU through the design of our signature prints like Zena, Baol, Walo, and Ndar.
Back when I was a teacher, I covered multiple additional topics to teach mathematics through art, anywhere from Algebra 1, Algebra 2 and Geometry and currently working on ways to share those lessons and ideas with math educators in the future
3. Mathematical Confidence
Empowering Through Expression:
One of the stark realities of math education is the lack of confidence that students often harbor when dealing with math. To address this, I harked back to my days teaching high school at math at Hillsdale High.
Letting Loose and Finding Confidence:
I found that students, generally had low confidence when it came to math. To counter this, I would encourage them to let loose and be dramatic when explaining basic or complex math concepts. The goal was not just accuracy, but also the ability to engage the audience with humor and creativity.
The Power of the Whiteboard:
The whiteboard became a stage where my students used to perform mathematical explanations with flair. This interactive approach alleviated the stress often associated with mathematics. It allowed students to see that mathematics wasn't just about correctness; it was about exploration, expression and connecting with an audience, which are all such important skills in the real world.
I am profoundly grateful for the opportunity to share these transformative learnings with Stanford graduate students who will soon become math teachers and researchers. I am so excited for the impact they will have on shaping more inclusive mathematical experiences for their future students.
If you're interested in delving deeper into my math lesson plans and work, you can explore further by following this link.
My journey into creative mathematics in the classroom is a path that defies traditional boundaries, empowers students with cultural relevance, fosters artistic expression, and cultivates confidence. This journey has completely transformed my approach as an educator and my work as a creative entrepreneur where math concepts and equations allowed me to create a new realm of design in the world of fashion. I am so excited to see the ripples of change that can emanate from these shared experiences across disciplines as we craft a more inclusive and responsible future in design and learning.