Making sense of experience.

I recently had the pleasure of visiting a mathematics classroom in an urban public high school. I created these sketchnotes to make sense of my experience.

The context of the visit came from a shared interest — mindfulness in mathematics. The teacher, whom I will call Mrs. MT (math teacher), invited me to visit, to learn, and to observe how she is incorporating mindfulness with her 9th grade algebra students.

As a mathematics educator and faculty member, most of my time is spent in my office (at home or on campus). Visiting schools and classrooms (such as my kindergartener’s math circle time), and this visit, help keep me grounded and invested in the important work of supporting and characterizing students’ meaningful learning of mathematics.


A Math Task. Mrs. MT introduced a task for students to work on.

There are 310 tickets to be sold for a school event. The number of student tickets sold is 25 more than twice the number of adult tickets sold. How many student tickets, and how many adult tickets were sold?

I noticed… a lot of cell-phone use by students, and with that, a fair amount of passive or cursory engagement. Mrs. MT was asking questions like “Whose head is spinning?” “Where is the question?” “Is it scary?” Noticing at one point when solving the task that “This is messy.”

I found myself wondering… Who is doing the thinking in this solving this task? What is new here for students? Is it review? What is the buy in from the students’ perspective to engage meaningfully with this task? Are they making sense of this scenario? Of the mathematics?

Learning Something New. Then we shifted to a segment Mrs. MT called “Learning Something New.” We watched a YouTube Video: Time-lapse of Baby Learning to Walk. After watching this short video, Mrs. MT asked:

“What did you notice?”
“How could this be applied to anything new I have to do?”

Almost all students were engaged. Mrs. MT elicited responses from over 6-8 students who said things like:

“She had a hard time”
“She kept going everyday”
“She was happy”
“She got back up”
“She kept trying.”

I think the intent was to share the notion of struggle in life and in mathematics. As Mrs. MT shared later in our conversation,

Math is a great reflection of life — the struggle is so much more important

– Mrs. MT, March 2018

Mindfulness. The next part of class was focused on mindfulness. Mrs. MT has routines to engage students in mindfulness practices during class. She followed a student suggestion to do the “chime” because, in the student’s words:

“the chime is the best one.”
“with the lights off it’s more calmer”

At the student’s request, Mrs. MT turned out the lights and instructed:

“Close your eyes.”
“When you stop hearing the bell,”
“Raise your hand.”

All students’ technology (cell phones) were put away. Everyone was silently, calmly sitting with their eyes closed. They raised their hands once the sound had dissipated. And they did this two times.

It was quite peaceful. Mrs. MT shared later that perhaps this is one of the rare moments in these adolescents’ daily routine where they are conscious without their technology (phones).

Reflection. In making sense of this experience, I see it as linked to a broader discussion and issue of

how to support students along social, emotional, and cognitive dimensions of well-being.

Doing math is more than solving tasks.
Doing math involves learning new things.
It involves struggle- just like life.

Our job as mathematics educators is also to educate the whole student.
In this case, the intersection of mathematics and mindfulness looked like creating a safe space for struggle, for learning new things, and for finding a sense of calm in the classroom.

For me, school has always been a sanctuary of sorts.
A safe place to grow and to nurture creativity and logical reasoning.
I didn’t feel safe at school because I walked through a metal detector, and had forced entry at only one door of the building. (The current norm in so many school buildings.)
I felt safe at school because I participated in a supportive community who saw me, and believed in my potential to grow as a human being.

From a humanistic perspective on mathematics education, and on learning, students are people, not data points.
Young people need supportive environments and leaders to help them grow and flourish along cognitive, emotional, and social dimensions of learning.
Perhaps an exploration at the intersection of mathematics and mindfulness will help us learn more about the kinds of supports learners need along the multi-dimensional facets of learning.


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