Back in 2011 I was feeling incredibly frustrated with my inability to teach basic math concepts to one of my students. She was making great progress in every area, but was falling further and further behind in math. Since she was highly motivated by art projects, I googled the phrase “math art” and found one of my favorite resources, Math Art: Hands-on Math Activities for Grades 2, 3, and 4. It’s a resource I’ve used again and again, and it’s helped my students understand concepts they were previously struggling with.
Back in May, I wrote a review of the book which you can see here. And this week, I had the pleasure of sitting down with the author, Zach, to discuss his book and what he’s working on now. Zach taught in an elementary school in the Bronx, left teaching for a couple of years to work in website sales and marketing, and now works as a Technology Integrator for a school in New York City.
Sam: So tell me about what are you doing now.
Zach: I wanted to go back into teaching and I thought what worked for me was that middle year where I taught my curriculum. What made that curriculum special is that the kids really enjoyed, looked forward to, and were excited by it. I thought about what else excited kids, what else can I use in that same way to be a successful teacher and make a difference. I decided that technology was the most similar to math art in that way, and also I was excited about it because it’s such a growing field. So that’s what I do now. I went back to school. I went to Teacher’s College and got my Masters in Educational Technology and now I work at an independent school in Chelsea.
Sam: Are you still integrating art into what you’re doing now?
Zach: Yeah. Now I’m able to teach things like animation, for instance. The kids animate things using an app called Do Ink. They make little stories that way. Do Ink doesn’t have sound so usually we import what they make in Do Ink into iMovie and add voiceovers. So the 5th graders wrote their own Greek myths as part of their regular 5th grade curriculum, and then I, as the technology integrator, added the animation element and they were able to animate. We do game design using Scratch, a programming language for kids. You know, a lot of digital drawing, HyperStudio, interactive art, that kind of stuff.
Sam: Do you still find that what you’re doing is connected to math?
Zach: I usually find math is the hardest subject to connect to technology in some ways, because the way you’re expected to learn math is through a lot of rote memorization of facts and proving that you can do. It’s harder to figure out how to put that in a project-based technological process.
Sam: I just read an article about a teacher who was using code to show the algebraic equation for acceleration. She was teaching the kids how to code, and they had a ball, and they had to keep increasing whatever that variable was in the equation, so they were increasing the acceleration of the ball. So you’re learning the equation and you’re actually understanding it instead of just learning it rote. But there’s so little room for teaching to understanding in the way teachers are required to teach now.
Zach: I want to, in the future, work more on ways of integrating technology and math, really technology and all subjects, but especially technology in math. There are a lot of apps that you can just give a kid and say “Hey, do this app.” Some of them are pretty good, they can do things you wouldn’t be able to do on a worksheet, but other ones are just worksheets in digital form, which isn’t really helpful. The ideal would be to have them do a fullblown project and along the way learn various things. I’m most interested in using Scratch to do that, because the Scratch stage is organized according to a coordinate plane, and based upon that you can teach a lot. Just to get something to move from the lower right corner to the upper left corner you have to understand coordinates. But then you can do a lot more than that. You can do things based on angles, logic, great than or less than, variables…So there’s a lot of math that can be molded into Scratch, which I want to explore in the future. But it requires sitting down and thinking hard about scaffolding an entire project, like I did with the lessons in Math Art.
Sam: I want to go back to something you wrote in your introduction to the book. You were speaking about having a visual rather than a verbal emphasis. Can you speak about that?
Zach: I think that kids, even adults, we learn visually. It’s a cliche, but a picture is worth a thousand words. You can have a lot more “aha moments” I think when you see visuals.
Sam: Do you have a favorite project within the book?
Zach: The project that spawned the whole book was the volume project. That’s where they make nine boxes and they stack them up on each other, and they can also be inverted, and nested. The kids loved that. It’s a lot of work to teach that lesson, but they really loved that one. Instead of telling the kids to just explore it, I decided to make the whole tower ahead of time, show it to them, say “hey this is cool, let’s make this tower.” And they’d be like, “hey I really want to make that tower,” then we go about doing it. And then, either afterwards or along the way, we put the math in there.
So that was the first project. I did that at the end of my first year of teaching and then I thought “I wonder if I can do this with all of my lessons. I wonder if every math subject can be consolidated into an aesthetically pleasing project that the kids can work towards and be excited to complete. Teachers say a lot of times it’s more about process than product, but I was kind of thinking about it in both ways. I wanted the product to be something exciting the kids wanted to make and wanted to finish, so I wasn’t choosing process or product over the other. I was exercising both.
Sam: What do you find the most beneficial about using art in math education?
Zach: It gives math a purpose, because otherwise kids will always think when do I have to use this stuff. When they’re using it make something that looks cool, they take away that doubt in their mind.
Sam: I used your Multiples project with one of my students and found that we returned to it many times over several months as we introduced new concepts, such as reducing fractions. Did you find your students returning to the art projects over the course of the year?
Zach: I didn’t have a classroom, I was a cluster teacher so I traveled with a cart and couldn’t hang projects up. But I could still use it, for example, with perimeter and say “Remember the lesson we did when we cut out the shapes and glued the segments of an inch around the shape” and the kids would say “Oh yeah, I remember perimeter.” Once the visual was in their head, I could return to it verbally pretty quickly.
Sam: I did the Perpendicular and Parallel project with multiple students. But some of these projects take a long time. A lot of my readers are classroom teachers, and some of them may be cluster teachers, and I was wondering how you managed the time aspect of that for students who vary in their abilities to complete pretty in-depth projects.
Zach: As a cluster teacher, I got a lot of practice managing time. The book tries to outline what I did in order to break it down. But, absolutely, many of the lessons are meant to be done over multiple sessions. The book doesn’t specify a time length for any of these projects because so much depends on classroom schedules and the aptitude of the kids, the resources in the classroom, all that kind of stuff. There would be a place in each classroom where kids stored the projects and could come back to them.
Sam: What is your main message to teachers and administrators who are hesitant to introduce art into other subject areas, especially when it’s an art project that takes a long time?
Zach: I would say that I think it has the potential to save time in the long run, (though not everything should be about saving time.) If you are a teacher and you get good at teaching lessons like this, [students] understand it faster and remember it longer if they did something memorable when they first learned it. If there are certain that your kids just need every year, that they struggle learning…area and perimeter I can remember from when I first started teaching. I thought “Oh, this is so easy, kids must get this right away,” and then when I actually started teaching it I realized they’re not getting this idea of perimeter. I would return to these subjects in three, four, five lessons on perimeter because they just weren’t getting it. So I designed the area and perimeter lesson because it goes straight to the heart of what it is and why you use it.
Sam: As a child, I actually struggled quite a bit with art projects because I had some level of anxiety about the end product not looking good. Have you encountered this with some students, and if so, how do you address those learners who may be hesitant to engage with the project?
Zach: One thing about these projects is that they’re more abstract. Nothing requires great artistic skill. The focus of these lessons is still math and opening up the students’s eyes to possibilities.
Sam: And my final question, is there anything else you’d like to add?
Zach: I’m always interested to know how people have adapted the lessons. I originally designed the book for second, third, and fourth graders but I think the lessons could quite easily be adapted for first graders or fifth graders.
I want to thank Zachary for taking an hour of his time to speak with me. If you’d like to see more of his work, you can go to his website: http://www.mathactivities.net/. You can also follow him on Facebook by clicking here.