An impressive body of research has shown a consistent and important finding: An individual’s sense of belonging matters—the need for belonging is a fundamental human need. While a sense of connection and acceptance is important for everyone, signals of acceptance may be particularly impactful for individuals who, like many students in the mathematics classroom, feel they are not “a math person” and are constantly asking themselves, “Do I belong?” Belonging uncertainty may also contribute to the underrepresentation of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.
The Importance of Creating a Mathematical Identity
Supporting high school students as they continue to develop a positive mathematical identity is essential for their long-term enjoyment of, and success in, mathematics. As the NCTM president wrote in November 2021, all students need to feel part of the math community; their identities as mathematics learners shape their willingness and ability to engage in mathematics work. Without a strong positive math identity, they have little motivation to engage with challenging math and persevere when they face challenges.
The extent to which students’ voices play a role in their math experience directly influences the mathematical identities they develop, as well as their sense of being part of the math community. Students should not spend most of their time in math watching someone else performing tasks or problem-solving, watching someone else having all the fun.
To cite the NCTM president’s February 2022 message, “Deep understanding is empowering and transformative. It builds a sense of agency and positive mathematical identity; it develops students’ confidence as knowers and doers of mathematics, and it opens up opportunities for all students as they pursue their future.”
A Strategic Approach: Do What Mathematicians Do
We can ask students to do what professional mathematicians do: Play with math and enjoy its playful nature. For example, students can participate in the same activity that organizers of the Southeastern Section of the Mathematical Association of America annual meeting in March 2020 created to preserve community spirit when their in-person meeting was canceled because of Covid restrictions: Make a math cartoon/meme contest.
The rules were simple: Create a fun mathematical image. The task was introduced by Ben Orlin of the Math with Bad Drawings blog. In short, it required creating a playful image that had to do with mathematics—research, teaching, concepts, culture, ideas, applications, etc.—without worrying about being side-splitting funny. After all, Orlin explained, the audience was an audience of mathematicians, who share similar sensibilities. While still dealing with Covid-related school restrictions, I decided to propose this contest to my calculus students.
I created a rubric for this project’s evaluation, but there are numerous online tools available to help you design your own rubrics based on the skills you want to develop or assess. Think about using peer review as well. This can take many forms, ranging from a brief, guided, or structured paragraph on a small number of peer entries to a peer review check rubric. Peer reviews, in addition to being beneficial to the teacher, can be a very effective tool for student engagement and further reflection.
In terms of both content and realization, the students’ works could not be more diverse. Some cartoons were directly related to students’ daily lives. One student, for example, bemoaned her inability to recall all the trigonometry she needed for the upcoming test (eliciting some sympathy from a similarly distressed fellow student). Another mocked the difficulties of “diving into math.”
A few students used familiar concepts, such as derivatives, to express their creativity, while others ventured into uncharted territory and researched much fancier polar equations to incorporate into their joke. Some students selected popular memes and completely re-imagined them for this occasion, while others created original memes. Some memes were designed entirely by hand, while others were superimposed on previously created drawings. Others were created using tools and apps such as Desmos, Geogebra, and meme generators like ImgFlip, while others were a combination of media.
The students’ memes and cartoons can be seen here. Altogether they were impressive and, for me, provided an extraordinary window on this group of students. The student who still loved SpongeBob SquarePants—even as a senior—found a way to introduce it in her cartoon. The intellectual curiosity of another shone in her deep dive into the intricacies of polar graphs—well beyond what was required for class. The cartoons reflected the quirky humor of a third student; the perseverance and responsibility of another (who completed her cartoon while she was also studying for a math test for which she did not feel too prepared); and the more social personality of yet another.
The collection of images turned out to be a snapshot—almost like a mathematical yearbook—of that class: a real keepsake, both for me and for the students.
I solicited students’ feedback, comments, concerns, and thoughts about the project, and they were overwhelmingly positive. According to one student, creating math cartoons was “a lot of fun.” Others described how they were initially stumped by the project and worried they wouldn’t be able to finish it, but then “the second and even third cartoon came so much more easily” once they got the hang of it.
Some students realized that they “had learned so much math that [they] could even… write some fun stuff with it.” Others said that wrapping up a difficult course with something fun was “a highlight” of their school year, and that it would “reinforce the best memories experienced in this math class.”
The students’ delight in completing this project, as well as their understanding and appreciation of the mathematical concepts they were drawing and their experience of sharing with the larger mathematics community, inspire me to create similar tasks that include choice, relevance, and creativity.