My Math Equity Project “Storientation”

Some diagrams, a table, and a graph used to explore a math problem
We’re playing with math problems in addition to talking about math

Note: I’m participating in the 2020–21 Math Equity Project, and one of our first tasks was to introduce ourselves with a “Storientation” giving the rest of the cohort and idea of who we are as a person, teacher, and mathematician. This is mine. (For more on the importance of storytelling in classroom culture, see this Edutopia post.)

Hi! I’m Skylar L. Primm, and though I’ve lived in Madison, Wisconsin since 2003, a bit of my heart will always be in my hometown of New Orleans, where I was born, grew up, and attended college. I was the only child in a white, two-parent, middle-class household, and both of my parents had college degrees. In fact, both of my grandfathers also had college degrees, and so did my maternal grandmother. In short, I was — and am — privileged. College was a foregone conclusion for me even before I attended magnet schools for gifted and talented kids in junior high and high school. (My parents and two of my aunts even attended the same high school.)

I’ve been a “math and science” person since as far back as I can remember. I played with my dad’s ticker-tape calculator as a child, and helped him check his totals sometimes at work, where he ran payroll and billing. (Later, I did paid data entry for his company, too.) My mom worked for the IRS when I was little, and retired from U.S. Customs a few years ago. So, despite earning her bachelor’s in English Language Arts, she worked with numbers every day of her professional life.

I was tracked into Algebra 1 in junior high school, so I followed the advanced path of Geometry → Algebra 2 → Trigonometry/Advanced Math → Calculus in high school. I have strong memories of two of my high school math teachers, Ms. L and Mr. M.

Ms. L was my Algebra 2 teacher, but she was — in my 15-year-old estimation — not a good one. I ignored her in class, instead concentrating on doing the homework while she lectured, and aced the class. At the end of the year, she told me how nice it was to have someone do so well in her class, “and with seemingly so little effort.” I still feel awkward guilt thinking about that moment. In contrast, Mr. M was my amazing Calculus teacher. He had a thick Alabama accent, mild hearing loss from playing bass guitar in a rock band, and a chalk allergy that led to him wearing rubber gloves to teach.

After years of simply enjoying math, Calculus — which I took as a senior, alongside Mr. N’s Physics class — awakened me to the beauty and elegance of the field. That is what I would peg as my “mathematical awakening,” more than anything. Learning about integrals and derivatives alongside velocity and acceleration, I was hooked.

(I also have a small memory of a third teacher, Ms. C, which is a terrible joke I still use with my students today: “What did the little acorn say when it grew up? Gee, I’m a tree!”)

My father died suddenly six weeks into my first semester of college, which led my academic journey onto a cul-de-sac for a time. By the time I returned to school (a year later, and back at home), I had no idea what I wanted to do with myself, but math gave me something solid to hang onto. My first semester of the college do-over, I took a five-days-a-week Calculus II course at 8am. And it was glorious. Later classes in Linear and Abstract Algebra continued to elucidate the beauty of math for me. Eventually, I majored in Geology and came one class shy of minoring in Mathematics.

Fast forward through 18 years of life — moving to Madison, graduate school, marriage, becoming a teacher — to today, when I’m on the cusp of turning 41. I’ve been a licensed secondary science teacher for 11 years, but I only received my math license last summer after taking the Praxis test and submitting my results to DPI (and waiting more than 6 months for them to process the paperwork…). That said, I’ve been teaching math alongside everything else this whole time, because all of my teaching experience has been in interdisciplinary project-based learning schools, the last 9 as co-lead teacher at High Marq Environmental Charter School in Montello.

I don’t think that my identities as a human being, educator, and mathematician are separable, because I bring my whole self into the classroom every day. (That’s why I’m on the board of the Human Restoration Project, whose mission statement is “Restoring humanity to education.”) I’m shaped every day by my students, whose voices need to be heard; my wife, who listens to me when I’m problem solving or celebrating; and my professional network, which includes my direct colleagues, the Greater Madison Writing Project, and a large number of Twitter friends.

In the past few weeks of this pandemic summer, I’ve noticed that some of the most invigorating experiences I’ve had have been the handful of times when a student has reached out and asked for help. There’s a real concrete sense of accomplishment when I can problem solve with a student, especially if what I’m able to do is help them help themselves. After a semester where I felt helpless to make a difference a lot of the time, these small moments of connection and collaboration have been a delight.

I’m here for the Math Equity Project because, though my rural classroom doesn’t feature much cultural diversity, there is a wide distribution in family incomes, education levels, and access to food and other resources. Because of this inequity — and a lot of other factors — I observe an inequitable distribution of math knowledge, confidence, and attitudes in my classroom. Even the students who are “good at math,” i.e. can solve standardized problems quickly, often don’t seem to enjoy it. They struggle to help others, which is, of course, a strong indication of deeper understanding.

Ultimately, my hope is for my students to see themselves as mathematicians just like might they see themselves as writers, and for them to develop a perspective of math as empowering, fun, and — dare to dream — cool. All that stands in the way is my own lack of experience and confidence in teaching math (versus assigning it) and the standardized math curriculum that is in severe need of a smashing. No problem, right?




Teacher as Artist, Teacher as Researcher, Teacher as Writer, Teacher as Teacher of Writing

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Skylar L. Primm (he/him)

Skylar L. Primm (he/him)

Cultivating students’ power, nurturing students’ joy, celebrating students’ humanity. 🧡🌱

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