Learning math through story: Examples from one teacher’s classroom

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Guest Blog | Monday, May 4, 2020

Learning math through story: Examples from one teacher’s classroom

You don’t see storytelling in a math class that often. But Missouri math teacher Mandi Tolen’s class isn’t the traditional type you’ve seen for decades in schools. Here's how she does it.

Mandi Tolen

This post is written by Mandi Tolen a math teacher from Missouri. You can connect with her on Twitter @MandiTolenEDU and check out her blog infinitelyteaching.com

When it’s time for students to learn about translations in geometry, they’ll do some practice problems -- repetitions to practice their new skills. But they’ll also create stories with their math. I have found that incorporating elements of storytelling gives learning math a whole new dimension.

Teaching transformation in math with storytelling

Take this one lesson where using story elements might surprise you: transformation. Students learn how to rotate, reflect and translate objects on an X/Y axis. I knew this material could be a drag to some students, especially those who were more inclined to writing and their English classes. I wanted to give those students something they’d love about my class.

Transformation comics

Students invented superhero characters and planned stories with characters, conflict and resolution. They plotted their characters on a coordinate plane. Each transformation they did -- a rotation, a reflection, a translation -- illustrated an event in the story. 

transformation comics

The students had to find ways that these movements would fit what a superhero would do. They brainstormed new vocabulary -- actions a superhero would do that mimicked the transformations on the coordinate plane. For example, for translations, their superheroes might run or fly.  For rotations, they might spin. They wrote narratives for their characters on a separate page. When the students finished, they shared their stories with their classmates. 

The students loved creating and sharing their stories. But they also got lots of repetitions, a key to mastering transformations. It was good practice but in a fun way and in a way that they will remember.

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Choose your own adventure in math class

In my algebra classes, I brought back a classic that I loved as a child: choose your own adventure stories. In these books, the reader chose which actions the characters would take and, in the end, led the characters to different endings. I read about the idea in my Matt's first book, Ditch That Textbook, and applied it to math class.

Choose your own adventure math example

My students developed characters, a plot and a setting. They added conflict in the middle and a satisfying conclusion at the end. They wrote their stories and loaded them on Google’s survey tool, Google Forms. Each section of the story had a math question with correct and incorrect answers. The incorrect answers had to connect to common algebraic mistakes that they had discussed in class. 

See the examples to the left and below.

When they finished, the students shared their stories with each other. They also shared for a wider audience: another math class in Missouri. At first, they shared them in a simple Google Doc. Later, they connected through Flipgrid, recording videos of their stories and watching the other students’ video replies. The activity was a hit. It was better than just doing a bunch of math problems. When we paired up with the other school, someone their age was looking at it and they wanted to do a better job with it.”

Teaching math through story has its benefits. It’s not just regurgitating math facts, it requires them to process information differently. Students reach the top levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. They do that hard, thoughtful work but it doesn’t feel like work at all. The mix of story and math really works the students don’t realize how much they’re actually processing this information in a new way.

More resources!

Click here to read the full Choose Your Own Adventure Stories blog post with links to:

  • A planning guide
  • Slides presentation
  • Scoring guides

Click here to read the full Superhero Transformation blog post with links to:

  • Student samples
  • Information sheet
  • Scoring guides

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