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Tell Your Story Better Through Graphs: A Laying the Foundation Experience

We invited Jonathan Edquid to talk about the importance of math in storytelling (and storytelling in math). Jonathan taught Elementary Math and Science, Year 1 at NMSI's Laying the Foundation this summer. 


The LTF Experience ExamplesOn the walls and cabinets are graphs. Chart-paper sized. One graph has several horizontal lines going from left to right, never increasing, never decreasing. Another looks like it was pulled right from the hottest tech company listed on NASDAQ, zig-zagging up and down, up and down, but reaching toward the sky. Teachers mill around the room, looking for the one graph that tells their story, sometimes having to choose between which story was most relevant for them. “Which graph represents my experience with NMSI LTF training? Who do I want be when I tell my story? Am I the one who makes the funny connection about how I discovered just how much math I don’t know? Does my enthusiasm betray how new I am to teaching, my attitude untouched by the pragmatism of my colleagues? Or am I unafraid to be earnest and talk about just how hard it is to be a teacher?"

It’s day 4 and this is one of my favorite days of the Elementary Year 1 training. We combine participants from both content areas – English Language Arts/Social Studies and Math/Science - so that we can reap the benefits of having cross-curricular discussions. And I love facilitating this introductory activity. The task is to find a graph that speaks to them and represents their journey over the last 3 days. We challenge ELA/SS teachers to use their math and science skills to interpret these graphs and the Math/Science teachers to find their creative juices and tell their story in one sentence.

It’s one of the best examples of engaging students in their learning and making personal connections to the content. Teachers collaborate and flex their graphical analysis skills and create their captions/stories, a beautiful combination of Math/Science and ELA/SS. It’s almost impossible that any teacher who had difficulty reading a graph before the activity doesn’t feel more confident in how to read graphs afterwards. And any teacher who was uncomfortable in trying something cross-curricular has a simple, quick-to-administer entry point to trying something new.

But this is not the only example of how LTF training shows how storytelling is important to learning. Learning, period. Not just student learning. Not teacher learning. But learning. Every lesson has a story. Because storytelling is how we communicate and how we incorporate learning into our existing knowledge base. Stories tie together loose facts and figures and skills and provide a framework to hang those facts and figures and a way to practice those skills.

I think back to my own learning experiences and the teachers I remember fondly, and most of the time they are the same teachers who were best able to make connections between content and life: Mrs. Perez from fifth grade who challenged us to think of social issues by participating in community problem solving, Mrs. Johnson who helped us code databases to organize our lives [2], Mr. Kimmit who helped us to understand engineering and design through invention. It’s those kinds of learning experiences that I want us as teachers to facilitate. Not every activity needs to be a giant project, but activities should illuminate the content in its real-world context [3].

Every lesson in the elementary year 1 math/science training provides a context for the content and skill, a narrative or story that engages the learner and invests them in the learning. Animal House day 1 begins with a visit to the zoo, imagining animal habitats and calculating the area and perimeter of the simple habitats and ends with animal conservation, the idea of nature refuges, and designing a boardwalk for a nature preserve. Amusing Fractions in day 2 has students working with marbles and ramps to create “rollercoasters” that allow them to practice working with fractions and division and gain an understanding of speed as a rate of change. How Blue is Our Planet in day 3 is a chance for students to think about their own water usage in relation to water conservation and build a model for the distribution of water on Earth. Each of these activities makes a personal connection with the learner and enables them to “see” that math/science are very much a part of the “real-world."

Science fiction writer Brandon Sanderson said it best, “The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon.” And it’s that message that I work to help teachers think about, and challenge them to internalize, during LTF training.


[1] These anecdotes are an amalgamation of only a sample of my experience working with teachers, but this one, this one I’ve heard on a few occasions. Not everyone is gifted with teacher bladder.

[2] IIRC, I coded a pretty sweet address book, in Pascal no less! Not that any hs student needed a digital address book in the mid-90s. At least I didn’t... I’ll leave you to your own judgments about what kind of hs student I was.

[3] That is not to say that every real-world context needs to be personal - that’s an egocentric view of the world that I don’t want to perpetuate – but that this skill, this knowledge is important, perhaps not to the learner directly, but at least to the larger scheme.