What does learning look like in June? It’s hot, kids are getting restless, and classes don’t typically get any easier academically. Quite the opposite, in fact, for Algebra 1 students and teachers at North County High School in Anne Arundel County Public Schools (AACPS) who, in their final weeks of 9th grade, worked on teaching and understanding one of the class’ most difficult concepts: Graphing Piecewise Functions.
In the past, through the Arts Empowered Minds Initiative, the Math department at North County High has enlisted a slam poet, a storyteller, and a steel drum musician to help teach Algebra 1 concepts. This year, they invited YA roster artist Christina Delgado to guide the 9th-grade students and teachers through the art of photography to produce images that symbolize points on a Piecewise Graph.
Piecewise functions have multiple equations that define different sections of a graph. One section may look like a straight line, the adjoining section may look like a parabola. Rather than having one equation that defines the graph, there are multiple equations that define the function for specific sections.
To bring this concept to life, Christina and the mathematics team took the complex math idea and made it personal. Students were asked to tell the story of their freshman year of high school and translate that story to a graph with the X-axis representing time and the Y-axis, happiness. As with life itself, happiness over time does not always look like a straight line or a steady curve—sometimes there are sharp turns and big ups and downs in short periods of time. Students started with the story they wanted to tell—the story of their school year, then worked backward to graph these stories over time and layered them over a photograph of their creation and choosing.
The students took the art form very seriously and paid close attention to Christina’s advice and direction—and because the teachers participated along beside them, they were able to experience the pleasure and resonance of learning through photography. They were able to relay this experience while leading a professional development course for the rest of the math department, giving them a small taste of how integrating the arts not only helps students grasp difficult concepts in math, but helps build community and understanding in the classroom.
“It’s a great way to learn how your students learn,” Christina told the teachers. Mr. Kellermann and Ms. Russell recounted how much their students enjoyed working on the projects—projects that were meaningful to them. “I learned a lot about the kids I didn’t know—it was cool sitting and talking with them and talking about their stories.” In preplanning sessions, students wrote stories about their lives, highlighting events that had an impact on them. Teachers helped students identify symbols that could represent critical points in these stories.
The Algebra 1 teachers walked the rest of the math department faculty through the same initial exercises their students completed on the first day of the residency. Just like their students, the teachers learned to operate and care for their tools and to use them respectfully. After reviewing some of the children’s final projects, talking about the choices their students made, and what elements were included to make their photographs visually interesting, the teachers set off on a scavenger hunt of sorts. They were to collect three images on their digital cameras: One of a colorful circle, one of a triangle, and the last one, showing pattern.
When their students were first handed cameras, they immediately wanted to take pictures of themselves and their friends. They quickly shifted their focus to the environment around them, however. They became observant and attentive. Now faculty members were able to see that being behind the lens requires them to look around and take note of what they are seeing—to be purposeful of what they are capturing in the frame. “I was trying to take a picture of this flower,” one teacher commented, “but a person blocked the way. It was like we partnered on it. It was kind of cool.”
That kind of partnership is something Christina fosters in her classroom residencies. “Actually, one of our rules is to cooperate,” the artist told educators. You have to share equipment, so students have to remind each other of how to handle cameras safely and carefully, but they will also share ideas and photo-taking techniques like perspective.
The faculty returned to the classroom to share their images. Their excitement and level of anticipation while waiting for the photos to upload matched their young students. One teacher, upon seeing a colleague’s photo of a circle, exclaimed, “It looks like Saturn!” As they clicked through the images together, Ms. Russell reminded them that in the classroom, reviewing the work does not signal the end of the lesson. This, too, was an opportunity to engage. “Alright guys, this is a great picture. Now how can we make it better?”
Day One: Camera Basics and Color, Line, and Pattern
The classes learned to operate and care for their tools and to use them respectfully. They then learned to identify visual art elements through the lens of a digital camera. After reviewing examples of Christina’s own work, talking about the choices an artist makes in capturing images, and what makes a photograph visually interesting, students and teachers set off on a scavenger hunt of sorts. They were to collect three images: One of a colorful circle, one of a triangle, and the last one, showing pattern.
Days Two and Three: Composition, Symbolism, and a Final Image
Christina arrived with bags overflowing with curious objects, colorful mementos, magazines, and flags. Everyone was excited to sort through the treasures to find the perfect piece to symbolize a moment in their story. Their task on this day was to put that object into a specific environment and use their cameras to capture it from a point of view that would support its meaning. “People were really mindful about how they were holding their cameras and the colors they used,” said the artist about students’ final photos.
Day Four: Visual Stories—Graphed
Students and teachers plotted timelines using a piecewise graph, then transferred the graph directly onto their final images. From yet another bag of goodies, the class added multimedia collage elements—stickers, multicolored transparency film, pipe cleaners, yarn—the works! “I encouraged the students to try and be creative about how they wanted to draw their line or how they wanted to tell their story a little bit deeper—maybe add some words and some embellishments to make their pictures stand out a little bit more.” They were able to create some really interesting and compelling multimedia pieces. “You’re seeing the graph, but you’re also seeing the visual representation of the graph or the story.”
Looking to the Future
Is it any wonder that positive energy and the excitement of big ideas in teaching will ripple through a school community and spark even more minds and imaginations? The math teachers at North County High School (NCHS) brainstormed many additional concepts they’d like to teach through digital photography. And the art department was so excited to see the Algebra 1 students’ finished pieces that they plan to replicate this exact lesson for their art students.
As even further evidence of their commitment to arts integration, NCHS just received a $40,000 STEM + Arts Integration grant from the National Office of Young Audiences Arts for Learning to support a year-long arts integration program with their 9th-grade Algebra students and YAMD teaching artists. Christina Delgado will be traveling to Kansas City, MO this August with Lacey Sheppard, AACPS Arts Integration Teacher Specialist, and Hana Morford, YAMD Education Director of Statewide Initiatives, to take part in a Professional Learning Institute to develop the program’s curriculum. We cannot wait to see the lesson plans that will emerge.
Learn more about the Arts Empowered Minds Initiative, its collective impact partners, and the community it serves by visiting artsempoweredminds.org.