Teach Math as a Story


I had the opportunity recently to complete peer observations outside of my content area. I scheduled a half day of observations with a sixth grade social studies teacher new to our building.  We observed in two eighth grade social studies classrooms and one sixth grade classroom.

If you’ve never observed outside of your content area I highly recommend it.  I think it forced me to pay closer attention to the general instructional practices, rather than focusing in on the content.

In the sixth grade classroom the teacher began by reviewing what the students discussed in the previous class.  They were in the middle of learning about Julius Caesar and the fall of the Roman Republic. The students eagerly answered her questions and were incredibly engaged with the “story” she was telling.

I was engaged with the story, intrigued by the cast of characters and happenings that she described.  The students were making predictions about what would happen next and the teacher responded, “just wait…maybe we’ll see today…”

The students knew the characters in this story, they understood how they related, they recalled the parts of the story that were told to them in the previous class, they made predictions about what would happen next. The teacher also knew this story, oh so well, that she could add on interesting and important details and maintain the curiosity that she had sparked.

I wondered…can we teach math as a story?

I decided to Google “Teach Math as a Story” and the first result was this.

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It is an excerpt from a book and it’s mostly about using stories in the math classroom, but it has useful think-a-bouts like this…

“In our description of how to teach mathematics, we are not concerned with fictional stories about the topic, but rather we are concerned with how we can shape the topic to enhance its attraction to students. In doing this, we will not be falsifying anything, or giving precedence to entertaining students over educating them. Instead, we will be engaging them. We see engaging students with mathematical activity as a crucial aspect of successful education as, and it is the real vividness and importance of this subject in which we want to engage students.

In summary, the great power of stories, according to Kieran Egan (1986, 2004, 2008), is in their dual mission: they communicate information in a memorable form and they shape the hearer’s feelings about the information being communicated.”

I did some additional searching through Peter Liljedahl’s work and found this interesting article that seems related to what teacher planning might look like in order to teach math as a story.

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In this article, Zazkis and Liljedahl contrast a typical lesson plan to what they’ve termed a lesson play.

“In terms of the pedagogical features of the lesson play, we wish to draw attention to some aspects of its format. The structure of the lesson play – as a dialogue occurring overtime with possibilities for different points of view – allows for the portrayal of the messy, sometimes repetitive interactions of a classroom. This structure stands in stark contrast to a necessarily ordered and simplified list of actions such as: take up homework, state definition, provide examples,give problems, and evaluate solutions.”

Crafting a lesson play provides for the improvised interactions that may occur with teaching math as a story-being able to respond and shift according to responses from students.

I don’t think any of this is dissimilar from the ideas in books such as 5 Practices,  but I now have a different analogy that I’m considering. As I continue the thinking that I’ve started here, I want to keep in mind these things in terms of how I work with the math teachers in my building:

  1. On the macro level-How can I help teachers to tell the math story as a set of interconnected ideas and concepts?
  2. On the micro level-How can I help teachers to consider a lesson play, so that the day to day story is just as interesting as the year long story they are telling? How do we get students to want more?


A Round Up of Posts on Professional Development

As an Instructional Coach one of the favorite things that I do is plan professional development.  However, it also produces such great anxiety because we all know how most of our colleagues feel about sitting through another round of professional development.   Professional development shouldn’t feel like something that is done to you…it should be done with you.  I realized that there are some great posts by those that deliver professional development and I wanted to round them up here.

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Wrapping Up A Year Of Math Intervention PD  by @bstockus

This means having a skill set that allows you to adapt and customize as needed to help the children grow mathematically, not to follow some prescription as though we’re trying to cure a cold.

Professional Development:  Doing Mathematics by @NicoraPlaca

My goal is that through experiencing math this way, teachers will see a benefit to this way of learning–that when we have the experience of seeing why a formula works or how it works, we have a different experience, which leads to a different type of understanding.

Changing Our Practice, Slowly by @jwilson828

When are we going to realize that over the past few years teachers have been making efforts to change their classroom instruction from students “sitting and getting” to students actively engaging in the mathematics?

I Did Professional Development All Wrong by @davidwees

So instead of spending the entire time I present talking, I give participants much more opportunity to talk. Instead of participants sitting around listening, I give them opportunities to do.

Establishing a Culture of Learning…The First Hour by@MathMinds

A culture where teachers talk about instruction, math problems, and student ideas, feel ownership in their lessons and the lessons of others, and can comfortably visit one another’s classrooms.



And because I value this bigger view on the current state of professional development…

Professional Development is Broken, But Be Careful How We Fix It by @tchmathculture

As long as we don’t have strong frameworks for understanding how teachers learn, PD –– even localized, teacher-led PD –– risks being just another set of activities with little influence on practice.