7/1/18: Eureka! I found it!

When I think of Jamie Garner and Chrissy Newell, I think of Number Talks. When I hear the name Andrew Stadel, I think of Estimation180. When I hear the name Fawn Nguyen, I think of Visual Patterns. When someone hears my name, what do I want them to think about? I’ve been struggling to figure out what that one thing is because I don’t feel like I’m a master at any of the tech tools out there, nor do I feel strongly about a specific activity, but I think I found what I want people to remember me by: humanizing the math classroom, especially in higher ed.


It is extremely easy to dehumanize the math classroom, especially at the college level. If we are not careful, students will think that they are treated like robots/calculators, performing procedures only caring about the correctness of their final answer (as seen from scantron tests and online homework). Not only this, but at least from my college experience, there’s a lack of teacher/student relationship. With these two ideas put together, there’s the potential of students feeling dehumanized on two fronts.

The impact didn’t really hit until last year when a student wrote on her final, “I thought it was really great you kept asking how my work was going or where I worked at. I think only 1 other teacher ever in my 4 ½ years at Fresno has ever asked me where I work or how is it. It really made me feel like I’m more than my ID #”. Especially at the college level, I think it is important that teachers build relationships with students because 1. They are humans and should be respected as such. 2. I believe that we all cross paths with one another for a reason and if we don’t talk, we miss that connection. 3. You never know when someone needs someone to talk to.

Humanizing the math classroom:

In this section, I will share just a few things that I do to humanize my higher ed math classes.

1. Student Autobiographies Before the semester begins, I give students the option to get a head start on creating their autobiographies. (It’s mostly for selfish reasons why I give them the option because I really can’t wait to meet my students). I also have them comment on two other autobiographies just to start community building.


Here’s a link to an example:


2. 20 Words/Phrases

On the first day of class, I ask my students to come up with 20 words/phrases associated with a typical K-12 math class with their table (as an ice breaker, once again for community building). Here is what one class said last semester:

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With only a few positive words/phrases, it seems like students would already hate my class before I even said a word, just based off their experiences in the math classroom. If I didn’t do this activity and just started with content, I would have already lost them.

What these words/phrases tell me are:

  1. They do not feel like they are valued as humans, but rather seen as calculators/robots. Teachers only care about the correctness of their answers.
  2. They do not have a voice.

After I write these words and phrases down on the board, I ask students to cross out the ones they don’t like and replace them with other words or phrases until they these 20+ words/phrases resemble their ideal math classroom.

With this activity, I can see how students feel about math and cater to their strengths and weaknesses and hopefully dispel their thoughts about what the math class looks like.

  1. Tips of the Day

When we talk about humanizing the classroom, we tend to emphasize the student end, but remember, you, the teacher, are not expendable and you have a lot of knowledge that students can benefit from. This is my way of personalizing the classroom. To this end, I give a tip of the day to start out each day.

Some examples:

Math is not about speed.

Math is the study of patterns.

Why does “a negative times a negative equal a positive?”

When you teach, pretend students can hear you but can’t see you.

Say “Ask me at least 2 questions” rather than “Do you have any questions?”

When I was student teaching in an 8th grade classroom, I would have tips of the week, like “Make eye contact when you talk to someone” and “Closed mouths don’t get fed.”

  1. Show them women can be mathematicians too.

This section is inspired by a talk from Dr. Jenna Tague. I tell students to take a couple minutes and draw a mathematician in their notebooks. After a couple minutes, I ask them to describe what they drew, and then I polled the class on the gender of their mathematician. The majority of my class are women, but the majority of the mathematicians they draw are mostly men. This is a problem because this shows that they cannot view themselves as mathematicians.

Here’s a table from the research done by Picker and Berry (2000). They asked 12-13 year old students to draw a mathematician and here are the results. Some do not add to 100% because they were unable to justify whether the mathematician drawn was a male or a female.

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Here are some of the drawings that the students had:

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When we look at these pictures, we think, “Who would want to be like this? Who wants to be a mathematician?”

I then talk about the people who inspire me as an educator. The top 4 mathematicians that inspire me are: Diana Herrington, Jo Boaler, Alice Keeler, and Jenna Tague. If these women did not see themselves as mathematicians, I would not be the educator that I am.

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This goes along with the humanizing aspect of social justice. Women are just as good as men in math, but unfortunately, a lot of the mathematicians that we talk about in our classes are mostly men: Euler, Gauss, Euclid, Eratosthenes, Archimedes, Newton, Leibniz, the list goes on. What I want to focus on this summer, is to research more on the impact of women in mathematics and the contributions of non-European countries in the history of math. This way, more students can start to see themselves as mathematicians.

  1. Take selfies with the students!

With teaching 180-190 students a semester, I try my best to remember their names years after, but sometimes it fails me. But at least I can get a selfie with each group!

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  1. Writing thank you cards.

I’m an extremely sentimental person and I hate things ending so I write individualized thank you cards to all my students. I thank them for choosing my class, for being great students, and that I wish them well in the rest of their collegiate and teaching career.

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This is just my rough draft thinking, and I know there are a lot of things that need to be modified, but the purpose holds true: Higher ed classes and math classes are susceptible to being dehumanizing so I would like to share and do more research on how to humanize higher ed math classes. Some topics that I am looking further to researching are: culturally sustaining pedagogies, social justice, and universal design for learning.

In the end,  It’s all about showing that you value your students for who they are and that their voices matter. 

Thanks for reading.