‘The truth about stories’: Yes, I am Aboriginal and I enjoy mathematics

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Florence Glanfield, University of Alberta
Guest Contributor This entry is part of the Equity Issues Portfolio’s series on Indigenizing the academy and Indigenous education.

When people learn that I am of Aboriginal descent and that I enjoy mathematics I am often looked at in a quizzical way. Often I am asked how I came to enjoy and to teach mathematics. And, I often assume, that I am being asked how you – as an Aboriginal person – came to enjoy mathematics. Over the years I’ve found it productive to respond by sharing two stories.

“The truth about stories is that that’s all we are,” suggested Thomas King, the first Massey lecturer of Aboriginal descent. Once you’ve heard a story, “It’s yours. Do with it what you will. Tell it to friends. Turn it into a television movie. Forget it. But don’t say in the years to come that you would have lived your life differently if only you had heard this story.”

Story 1: I have many memories of spending time with my father and maternal grandfather walking in the bush around the ranger station where we lived. As I’d walk alongside my father and grandfather they would point out the impressions that our footsteps would make and differences in the types of trees and grasses depending on the amount of sunshine. My father would tell me about the cycles of growing; the role of a forest fire in forest renewal; how the growth pattern of a tree is changed when a branch is broken. My grandfather would notice small animal tracks and teach me how we could follow those animal tracks in amongst the trees and grasses to learn about the animal. As I grew up, I learned to listen to both my father and grandfather and I learned to give my own thoughts when I heard, “My girl….what do you think?”

Story 2: I’ve wanted to be a teacher since I was five years old, the year I started school. I was a prolific reader and eager to engage in all aspects of school. My first memory of mathematics was counting popsicle sticks. My first grade teacher would put a pile of popsicle sticks on my desk and my task would be to count the pile by first of all making bundles of 5 sticks and then by combining two bundles of 5 for a bundle of 10. We eventually combined 10 bundles of 10 sticks for a bundle of 100. While in school, for me learning the symbols related to mathematics was like reading and learning to solving a puzzle.

For me, the symbols used in mathematics needed to have meaning, just like the letters in reading. I loved the activities with bundling popsicle sticks because the symbols associated with the counting of the popsicle sticks illuminated a pattern for me in number. I learned for example that the number 140 could be one bundle of 100 sticks and 4 bundles of 10 sticks or it could be 14 bundles of 10 sticks. I remember becoming excited when I noticed patterns in the pages of calculations that we would be asked to do in mathematics class or when we would have to do ‘timed tests.’ I often did not finish the ‘timed tests’ because I would get lost in the patterns. These early experiences with letters and numbers taught me that no single letter and no single number had any meaning without a context.

What do these stories mean for me?
My quest for learning and understanding came from these early experiences of noticing – my father and grandfather teaching me to notice patterns around me, to recognize relationships, and to be curious by expressing what I thought; and my first grade teacher inviting me to notice relationships and patterns in numbers through the activities she planned. This noticing of patterns and relationships in numbers and then when I was older, in algebra, contributes to my enjoyment of mathematics. When I see a mathematics problem I begin to look for patterns. The enjoyment for me is in the noticing. I remember once when I was in the 11th grade when I began to be conscious of the noticing of these patterns: the teacher was introducing a unit on solving quadratic equations and I remembered noticing that it was similar to ideas about linear relations that we’d studied the previous year. I realized why I so enjoyed mathematics. I liked to figure out or solve the puzzle about the relationships between ideas and that meant noticing patterns.

What do these stories mean for my teaching practice?
In the same way that my father and grandfather wanted me to be aware of my footprints on the grasses, I want my students to see interconnections among mathematical ideas. I want my students to come to know that mathematics isn’t just about a collection of textbook chapters, a collection of different ideas, or a collection of formulas to be memorized. Rather, mathematics is a web of interconnected ideas and relationships.

Although the two stories that I shared with you are now over 45 years ago, the memories stay with me. These memories have contributed to and continue to shape who I am as a teacher. As a teacher, I pay attention to the patterns and relationships within mathematics – as in life – and I invite my students to talk about how they are noticing patterns and relationships. By spending time getting to know the students I taught when I was a high school mathematics teacher I learned that by listening to the stories that they told about who they were, it helped me to build relationships with them. Building relationships with my students helped me to feel comfortable when I would ask, “What are you thinking” in my mathematics lessons. When I was asking “What are you thinking”, I was inviting each of my students to share that noticing of patterns and relationships with me.

I now teach in-service and pre-service teachers about what it means to teach mathematics. I invite my students to look for patterns and relationships within school mathematics curricula so that they can ask their students, “What are you thinking?” Like I wanted for my high school students, I want my current students to notice patterns and relationships among mathematical ideas so that they can invite their students to notice patterns and relationships.

Some final thoughts
The stories I shared with you in this writing are my own. They are the stories that I tell about who I am in relation to learning and in relation to mathematics. Learning and teaching mathematics is about noticing patterns and relationships. Mathematics is, for me, a human endeavour.

You’ve now heard my story about how I have come to enjoy mathematics. And, yes, I am an Aboriginal person who enjoys mathematics. So, please, “It’s yours. Do with it what you will. Tell it to friends. Turn it into a television movie. Forget it. But don’t say in the years to come that you would have lived your life differently if only you had heard this story. You’ve heard it now.”

Florence Glanfield is an associate professor and associate chair in the Department of Secondary Education in the Faculty of Education, and an Affiliated Faculty member with the Centre for Research for Teacher Education and Development at the University of Alberta.


Equity Matters


florence, thank you for sharing your stories. i remember meeting you at the math teachers symposium in montreal, and I remember how inspired I felt to meet you. I have carried your wisdom with me. i believe that we are somehow taught that math and science is not for us, yet through your stories, you have taught us a lesson about indigenous knowledge, and the need to recognize our strengths and follow our dreams.
thank you.