Episode 153: Crafting A Hero’s Journey: The Power of Storytelling in Math Class

Nov 1, 2021 | Podcast | 0 comments



Today on the podcast Jon & Kyle dig into Crafting a Hero’s Journey: The Power of Storytelling in Math Class including why teaching math should be more like telling a story, what elements will help you craft a lesson that plays out like a story to spark curiosity in your students, how to get kids hooked in just like your favorite movies and books, and finally where you can go to learn more and begin crafting your own mathematics program that feels like a book you don’t want to put down.

You’ll Learn

  • Why teaching mathematics should be more like telling a story vs. “teaching” with the gradual release of responsibility model;
  • The necessary elements that will help craft a story that sparks curiosity in your students; 
  • How you can shape your math lessons so they’re like your favourite addictive movies and books; and,
  • Where you can go to find more on making your math class a story that students won’t want to end.
Start your school year off right by downloading the guide that you can save and print to share with colleagues during your next staff meeting, professional learning community meeting or just for your own reference!


Kyle Pearce: Today on the podcast we'll be digging into crafting a hero's journey, the power of storytelling in math class, including why teaching math should be more like telling a story, and what elements will help you craft a lesson that sparks curiosity in your students.

Jon Orr: We'll also dive into how kids get hooks, just like we do in our favorite movies, books, TV shows, we'll also dig into some places you can go to learn more so you can begin crafting mathematics program, that mathematics program like a story of your own.

Kyle Pearce: Before we dig in, Ali, our man behind the glass, queue up that music.
Welcome to the Making Math Moments That Matter Podcast, I'm Kyle Pearce.

Jon Orr: And I'm Jon Orr, we are from makemathmoments.com, and we're two math teachers who together-

Kyle Pearce: With you, the community of math moment makers worldwide who want to build and deliver math lessons that spark curiosity-

Jon Orr: Fuel sense making-

Kyle Pearce: And ignite your teacher moves. Friends, we are so excited to come to you on your favorite podcasting platform, but also with video, you can see us if you're on YouTube, watching us on the YouTube channel, we are going to try our best to continue offering video opportunities for you for the podcast. Jon, we've got a doozy of an episode here because I think it's going to really help connect a lot of the ideas that we've been sharing over these 150 plus episodes of the podcast.

Jon Orr: Yeah, for sure. I'm really excited to chat with you, Kyle, about this topic on storytelling and how to craft a story, and what are the elements that go into that story so that we can model our lessons around that and capitalize on this art form that's been around for forever that we've been using to communicate ideas, and communicate powerful ideas. Storytelling is that platform, and we're going to do this here today with you, is this how do we do this in the math class? And like Kyle said, it wraps around our mathematics framework that we talked about, our three part framework here for the Make Math Moments Podcast, and also on our website. So looking forward to getting into that with you, Kyle, let's begin here in this episode by telling, maybe we should just, why do we need to even talk about a new model of math lesson? I know that we've chatted many times about what our classes look like before we've made switches, but let's dive into why we need to make some changes.

Kyle Pearce: Yeah, well it's actually interesting because you were talking about storytelling, and we think about story as something that has been around forever, and some of the best legends, some of the best stories, some of the best history is told through story, and those tend to stick. When somebody tells you a story, especially when there's a lesson to be learned, they tell it through story, but yet when we look at math class, and we think back to at least, again, the experience that you and I share quite often, is that it wasn't really a story, it was almost as if we had signed up for math class and really wanted to learn and just expedite the process, when in reality we were just sitting there as students that had to take information in, I just wonder how much more of it would've stuck had we had experienced that storytelling scenario or situation.
So I think back to Greek Gods, the Greek Gods, those stories were all about learning and teaching a lesson, and why did they tell it through story instead of just telling those lesson? Don't fly too close to the sun, that's all you need to say, move it along. No, they told-

Jon Orr: Copy down your notes.

Kyle Pearce: Copy it down in your notes. They told a huge story around it so that it would resonate, so that it would stick, so that you'd remember it, and then hopefully you'd be able to put it into action. Jon, when I think back to that gradual release of responsibility model that you and I both remember as students, and also used as teachers for quite a long time, I know that sometimes we try to throw in some hooks or storytelling elements, but they certainly don't seem to play out like a story.

Jon Orr: Yeah, when you say hook I just think back to my days as a student teacher and sitting in pre-service classes and they're saying, 'You got to have a hook to your lesson," and what they were trying to say back then is, you've got to craft your lesson like a story so that kids can be hooked into that lesson, that idea, what is the big idea you want to bring about? And I think that gradual release of responsibility, the way that I was designing my math lessons, at times I was like, what is the hook? But the hook was, I'm going to present this math problem that is hard that we might not know how to solve, and then we're going to show you how to solve it.

Kyle Pearce: And I'm going to make it easier for you, somehow I'll make it easy.

Jon Orr: Yeah, it was, "Today we're going to learn about this," and I would write the goal on the Blackboard, and then it was like, "Let me show you how to do that so that you don't struggle at all. You're not going to have any worries, you don't have to think about what to imply, I'm going to show you the steps that are needed so that you can get through this." And I think why we did that, Kyle, is because we knew that most of our students struggled with math class, struggle with math, they hated math. Even the kids who didn't hate math they would be like, I find this part tough, but not this part.
And it was we were coming from a place of help, I wanted to make it super, super easy for students to follow, and I thought that was being a great math teacher is if I could make this as easy for you to follow, you would be fine. And what I was, I think, forgetting, or what I learned later, was that I think it was the struggle, it was this toughness, this problem solving aspect that I was leaving out and just telling kids how to solve problems instead of letting them experience that, and I think we missed out on a lot there.

Kyle Pearce: When you go back to and you think about stories, and the reason why a story is what it is, is so the lesson sticks. And when we think about how you and I were both, and we can't speak for everyone else listening, but how you and I were designing our lessons it was like, we just want to get you over these little hurdles. Every day was just a hurdle, once you're over the hurdle, what was there to remember? What was there to connect my thinking and the work that we did that day? And then we would go weeks later, or sometimes months later when we'd go to the end of a semester, a standardized test or an exam, and then we'd wonder why those students, it was like we had to reteach everything, and it was like nothing ever stuck. Then we start thinking and go, but there wasn't really a story to remember there, there was just all these little disconnected pieces floating around that didn't really have a meaning.

Jon Orr: Totally, and I think we were just hoping kids would memorize the procedures, or if we do that will become second nature. A lot of times you would relate it to basketball practice, you got to shoot the basketball so many times so that your muscle memorizes, and we'd say, "Oh, math is like that." But I don't think math is like that anymore, Kyle, I think math is more about making connections instead of just repeated action.

Kyle Pearce: Absolutely, and of course we want purposeful practice, we want all of those things, but based on what? So where's the story, and if there is no story there, then you're just repeating something over and over again and hopefully it'll just automatically happen. So let's talk a little bit about elements of storytelling, and I know inside our online workshop we have of lesson on what we call the hero's journey. I mean, we don't really call it that, we just apply it to math class, because this is actually something that was shared with us at a workshop we were at, one of the, I'm sure you remember Joseph Campbell was at the-

Jon Orr: Well Joseph Campbell is the author of the, this is the person who wrote about the hero's journey as a cycle, as a model of storytelling. We learned it, I know where you were going with that, Kyle, is we were at an Apple conference a number of years ago and the head of storytelling from Pixar Studios was there. And you know what? I'm like you, I forget the gentleman's name, but he was an amazing storyteller, this is probably why we remember this part of that conference is that he brought up this hero's journey as this act of storytelling, and it really stuck with us. And I want to outline this for our listeners here, because on YouTube right here we have some visuals that are coming up, but we're going to describe them here for you listening at home, or in your car, wherever you're listening to us right now.
But let me describe the hero's journey, and what we have done is we've put this as like a graph. If you Google hero's journey you're going to see a cycle, because of the way this journey carries out, but basically the hero's journey is a model of story that every single popular story that you know about, that you're like, "I loved that adventure story, I loved that science fiction story, I love that love story," they all have the exact same story arc, and that's what Joseph Campbell talks about in The Hero's Journey, it's this exact same story arc. And I'm just going to describe it to you, and what we've done is we've put it up on a graph, and I'm going to share that up on my screen here, Kyle, let me cue that up.
So what the hero's journey is, and if we put it on a graph, this is what we math teachers love to do, we put things on graphs so that we can understand them better, I want you to think of the horizontal axis as the time, time of this story, time of this character on this path in a movie, in a book, in a TV show, and the vertical axis is the tension, this is the tension that the audience will feel watching or reading or participant painting in this story. And every single story, and I'm going to use my favorite one, Kyle, do you remember what my favorite reference here is this for?

Kyle Pearce: It's definitely not my favorite.

Jon Orr: I know.

Kyle Pearce: I will say that, but I'm going to let you have your fun, have your Star Wars fun, go for it.

Jon Orr: Yes, okay, so we're going to relate this to Star Wars. Kyle hasn't seen star wars, I think, so don't hold it against him.

Kyle Pearce: And have absolutely no plans to watch it ever.

Jon Orr: Yeah, this one perfectly fits this hero's journey, but lots will fit this storyline. So every story starts the same way, in the beginning the character, they're in their element, and then when something changes and they're set on the path, they're set on this journey, they're set on this like mission or adventure, and what happens is the tension starts to rise and they're going along this path. And what every hero must do in that journey, they have to battle the forces of evil, they have to overcome struggles that teach them things about themselves, teaches them about the people that they're with, it's this crisis that the hero will go through. Every story has that part, and usually along that crisis the hero will meet a guide.
So if we pause here for a moment, Kyle, and think about Star Wars, for all of these listeners who have seen Star Wars, except for you, Luke, in his own world, he's in his world, he's a farmer, and then some terrible tragedy happens and he decides he has to leave his world to travel and go through these battles, he has to go through this struggle, but along that path he meets Obi-Wan Kenobi, who's his guide through this struggle part. So every hero has that guide. Now we saw this at Pixar, remember the story that this gentleman shared with us was Finding Nemo, and Finding Nemo has the hero's journey model as well. Think of the father, oh, I even forgot the father's name. The father has to... Marlin, is it Marlin?

Kyle Pearce: I know Dory is the other, right? Yeah, everyone knows Dory.

Jon Orr: Yes, now Dory is the guide on this story, Kyle. So Marlin, he's got to save his son, he's got to find him, and he's going through all, think of all these struggles that he has to swim through, but along that Dory, even though Dory can't remember anything, Dory is the guide that helps him through that struggle.
And so every one of these stories ends the same way, you get to this climax, but the climax wouldn't be worth it if the hero didn't go through all of the crisis, they didn't battle the forces, they didn't learn about themselves, they didn't go through this struggle, because it's the struggle that really makes that climax worth it in the end, especially for the viewer or the reader of the story. And what happens at the end of all of these is that the hero will return home, and it's not the same home as before, things are a little different, the hero's also learned about themselves along the way, so it's not exactly the same home, things have changed a little bit.
This is the way the hero's journey is described, and it's a cycle because the hero would then do this again and again and again, and it happens again and again in so many different stories, and why we want to outline this is because this technically, even though this is a storytelling element, we know from seeing this curve, you can imagine this curve, this time access, that the tension rises and then it comes to a peak and then it falls. So if you want to think about his, there's a skewed graph to the right here where we've got this tension rising up to the right, hits a climax and then falls because he goes home.
And what we noticed when we saw this, when we were at that session, we said, that's not just a hero's journey model of storytelling, this is a learner's journey. This process, this struggle, this graph that we've created here, this skewed model to the right where it hits a climax is like every time we learn something of value, we go through this model. Think about, Kyle, you play the guitar, you had to learn how to play that guitar, in the beginning, you were set on a path, you knew you wanted to go somewhere, and then think of the battling the forces of evil, think about your fingers, think about the chords, think about all of that work that you had to put in, it wouldn't make you knowing how to play the guitar now as worth it to you unless you went through all of that struggle and hardship, it's that part that defines that moment where it's like, this was worth every moment.
And if you think about it, anytime you've learned something that you really and truly value, you do go through that model where you have to, it's that struggle that you attach value to that learning, and that's what we want to happen in our math class. And when we think back, Kyle, to our gradual release of responsibility model of math class, we weren't allowing our students to go through that struggle. We were just saying, "Hey, I'm going to help you out here, I'm going to show you all the steps, I'm going to give you all the examples so that you don't actually struggle," because I wanted to make math easier, and what we were doing, by taking away that struggle, we were robbing our students of that productive struggle, attachment of value to that learning.
And this is why kids say, "Why do I have to learn this?" They don't care anymore, it's because we've taken away that battling the forces of evil part, and there's no need to want to learn this, because we didn't attach any value to that learning. And that's been our mission, right Kyle? Since day one of us doing this podcast, or our courses, or even working with our students, is how can we craft this hero's journey model in our math classes, rather than just doing what we used to do with this gradual release of responsibility?

Kyle Pearce: Well it's interesting too, Jon, because when we go back to when we were both in the same room, sitting next to each other, watching this writer from Pixar take us on this idea of the hero's journey, and I think we knew it in the background, we knew that this existed, but because we were there through the lens of math teachers it immediately had this effect on us, and we started to realize what we were trying to do. Because even back then, Jon, I don't know if you remember this, but at that time we hadn't crafted our three part framework, we hadn't put that together. We were experimenting with three act math tasks, and if you think about the work that Dan Meyer has done, and his blog post, which will link up, The Three Acts Of A Mathematical Story, although he talks not about the hero's journey itself, he's talking about three acts, the three act model is much or very similar to the hero's journey, a lot of those same elements are there.

Jon Orr: For sure, the three acts are there, you've got the beginning, the middle part is the struggle, the attaching value to that learning, and then the end is when Dan would say, "We got to reveal the answer here," that's like, hey, that's the climax, now we're going to head home.

Kyle Pearce: These are things that started to align, like the stars started to align for us, and we started thinking about, what does this actually mean? So as you can see on the screen, for those who are on YouTube, you can see this curve, our old curve, which was this, hey I'm just going to tell you, you might struggle for a moment, but with enough practice you'll get over that hump, and it was that rush to the algorithm. When we flatten this curve out, and I say flatten, but more or less have a gradual increase of this curve, you start to see these elements that we're talking about, you start to see curiosity, and we're trying to keep kids curious as long as possible. And how do we do that? Well, we do that through the curiosity path.
So we provide opportunities to notice and wonder, for students to anticipate by withholding and information, and then we get them estimating. And actually, Jon, something I'm going to share, because I actually was Googling for this image thinking it might come up, when I share my screen, what's really cool is that what came up on Google when I looked was actually a former workshop participant who had reflected on this very lesson, and I'm not going to say the last name, I know the last name, but I noticed on her website she doesn't have her last name anywhere so I'm going to respect that, so it's Jennifer, the website is apocketfullofpie.com, and down here what's really cool, she goes through the impact that lesson had, but then she also made her own, she took that curve and she actually walked us through, based on her lesson for exponents, so she talks about the notice and wonder, let kids explore possible patterns, reveal the context, make predictions, doing the math, refining predictions.
And then you see she kind of goes over the edge of this curve where now we start, we consolidate this idea of exponent, maybe it's exponent laws they're looking at, whatever it might be, all the way down to now we can do some of that purposeful practice, as we had mentioned. Now that purposeful practice has some legs underneath it, it has something going on there where now I can connect it back to of the story which is our math lesson. And for me, this was great to not only see that a student who went through the online workshop has an awesome reflection online sharing how they're going to try to be the hero instead of the guide, it really gets us thinking about-

Jon Orr: The other way around, they're going to be the guide, not the hero.

Kyle Pearce: Yeah sorry, the guide, not the hero. Please don't be the hero, I think we've been the hero long enough. But when we're crafting these lessons, like if you think about it as a story, and it doesn't always have to be a knock it out of the ballpark kind of story, but it does have to have something there for students to join you on this journey, and you want to guide them through this journey, and they have to obviously want to be a part of that journey, they don't want to just follow and mimic, which is what Jon and I have done for so long.
So hopefully thinking about your math class as a lesson, as a story that students can think on, and the example that I have in mind, my most recent, I was in a classroom today in person for the first time in a long time, which was awesome, but we were in person, and the whole story of the context, we were multiplying fractions and we used the shoveling the driveway problem. And to be able to have this conversation, and everything throughout this lesson was connected to this context where students were all on the same page being able to reference this same driveway, and being able to use fractional language like I haven't heard students use quite often because it's so disconnected, it really does, very quickly you start to see that, wow, I could probably reference this particular context weeks from now and students will be able to come back to this moment and relive at least a portion of that lesson and that learning that we were hoping that they would elicit from the experience.

Jon Orr: Nice, nice. Yeah, that's another great example of that. And going back to what you've got here on the screen about that student of ours from the online workshop, that is actually, they've done a great job because that's actually one of our lessons in that workshop is to take the hero's journey model and map your lesson on top of that diagram, so super exciting to see that. We're going to put that blog post in the show notes, a link to that. I was typing that just a moment ago, so on the fly here, so super excited to share that with you.
Also, another thing that we want to share with you is more resources on storytelling, and I think the storytelling aspect can be done so many different ways. So much of what we can do in our math class is tied to storytelling. Think about assessment for a moment, assessment is you're telling the story of their students journey through assessment, how can we do that with the tools that we have at our disposal? How can you share that journey with your students? What are you doing for assessment? If you can think of it more as a story, then I think that will actually change some of your mindset around how you view evaluations and tests and assignments, and the way you're assessing, because it has helped me do that significantly.
Kyle, another resource I want to share here is we've got the Make Math Moments Virtual Summit, the 2020 virtual summit coming up, at the time of this air date, it's in November, and November 13th and 14th is coming up soon if you're listening to this episode when it goes live, or in those weeks of November 13th and 14th of 2021. And I really want to point out, because there is some sessions in this summit completely dedicated to storytelling. The first one is from Sunil Singh. Kyle, can you describe what Sunil's session is about, synopsis here, because I'm really excited to see this session, and also he's got a book coming out all about storytelling and mathematical wellness, super exciting stuff from Sunil lately.

Kyle Pearce: Yeah, and Sunil is awesome, I am proud to be able to call him not only a colleague, but a friend. He has been someone that we have had the pleasure of learning with and from for the last, I would say what? Now it's got to be six, seven, maybe eight years now, going all the way back to some of our earlier OAMEs. But Sunil is going to be talking about Mathematical Wellness: Nourishing Ourselves with Storytelling, there's that storytelling theme, and Math's Messy Middle. Basically what Sunil, he's talking about, and his descriptor goes something like this, he says, "One of the most negligent things we've done in mathematics is that its purposes have always been directed externally to supporting and providing for society. The focus has also taken a toll on our students and teachers who must engage with mathematics through a lens of compliance, performance, and competition." How true that really is, and that rings true there.
"Our energies have been consumed in this toxic landscape, but our failure has been that we have neglected ourselves. What purpose does mathematics have with our life's journey? To answer that question we must approach math in a complete new way, we must embrace confusion and uncertainty," so there's that productive struggle message coming out, "With excitement and not trepidation, we must do this because it's been the entire historical narrative of the history of mathematics, we must reclaim its human power and purpose." Wow, that is impactful, and I know that Sunil has spoken on some of these concepts in the past, and he's been a part of our previous summits, and we've also had the opportunity to support him whenever we're at NCTM and OAME, we always like to go in, hear what's Sunil has cooking. And Sunil, some people might not know this, unless you've gone all the way back to one of our first episodes really, I think it was episode five or six, or something like that.

Jon Orr: I think he's 12 or 13.

Kyle Pearce: So he's way back there, and Sunil actually was a high school teacher and actually walked away from the profession because of some of these things that he's discussing in this description. So Sunil's going to be talking about the why, why we need to do these things, but he's also going to give you some ideas on what that might look like and sound like, and I'm sure by the time this summit comes out we'll be close to him releasing his new book, Chasing Rabbits, so that will definitely be another support as well. So I think your first step when it comes to getting this storytelling piece here and trying to figure out mathematical wellness, check out Sunil session at our virtual summit coming up, that's makemathmoments.com/summit if you haven't registered yet.

Jon Orr: Yeah, for sure. And don't forget it is completely free, Kyle and I, one of our main missions with what we do here on the podcast and the summit, and in our webinars that we hold quarterly four times a year, or I guess three times a year, Kyle, is that our big mission, our big why, is that we want to provide as much professional development to as many educators, we want to make it accessible for as many people as possible. And part of the reason is why we do this podcast, podcasts are completely free to listen to, and we want to provide you that professional development this way, but here's another way that digs a little bit deeper is to get in sessions with folks. So all of these folks know that this is a completely free conference and they are still here helping you guys out, so super excited to bring that to you and as many teachers as we can.
Kyle, I want to point out another session here in this year's summit on storytelling, and this one is by Amy Alznauer, Her title is Why Stories Matter in the Math Class, so it's right there. Her description is, "Stories are at the heart of being human, so they belong wherever human beings gather, but especially in the classroom. Stories inspire, expand our horizons, they make them kinder and more beautiful, they initiate new projects and offer a common language to help build community. Amy, a university math teacher, will talk about how math stories changed her life, and then use her book, The Boy Who Dreamed of Infinity, to show how adventure, learning, and community might grow from a single story." So excited to have Amy join us, this is her first time at our virtual summit, and super excited for her to join us and talk about storytelling. We've met with her a few times to talk about these ideas ,and really excited to have her as part of this year's summit all ready.
Kyle, we're going to start wrapping up here, because I know that we're getting to the end, but can you let everyone know where to go if they have not yet registered?

Kyle Pearce: Yeah, absolutely. And I know we did mention Dan Meyer and Three Act Math, he's going to be a part of the conference, we've got all kinds of amazing names joining us for the virtual summit this year, and you're going to notice, now that we're talking about story, when you watch these presenters, I want you to listen and I want you to see how they present, and you're going to notice some of the most impactful presenters that we find often use story in order to present their session. So story is everywhere, so how can we build this into our math classrooms?
You can go and register for this virtual summit free at summit.makemathmoments.com, and once you're there, or just Google Virtual Summit Make Math Moments, it'll pop up, get yourself registered. This is our third annual virtual summit, so maybe you're hearing this after November, maybe it's past the virtual summit, well head to the same link, we're going to have an option for you to sign up so that you're notified the next virtual summit, so that you get a email and you're alerted. We usually have over 15,000 participants over the weekend, and we're hoping that this year is going to be one of our best years ever. Jon and I are going to be doing a session as well on problem-based learning, and it's all going to be through story and context. So again, if you want to learn how to do that in your classroom, make sure to check out our session, as well as many of the other awesome sessions. There's going to be over 25 speakers, and it's going to be jam packed, so I think we've got an awesome opportunity coming up here on November 13th and 14th, 2021.

Jon Orr: Yeah, and just to wrap up here on this particular episode, just to leave you with some big ideas that we talked about here in this episode is we wanted to talk about why teaching math should be more like story versus teaching with that gradual release of responsibility, really hope you're saying yes, we've done that here. Another thing we wanted to do here was talk about the necessary elements that will help you craft that story, how to spark curiosity in your students. It is embedded in our three part framework, which we've got a link to that in that guidebook in the show notes page here. We also wanted to help you shape your lessons so that they can be addictive in my books, and that's what storytelling can do, like how do we get that hook into those lessons? Hopefully we gave you some sparks there. And finally, where can you go learn a little bit more of this? And I hope we gave you some suggestions here in this particular episode. Kyle.

Kyle Pearce: Yes, Jon, nice job summarizing there. Friends, if you haven't yet, make sure that you do some reflecting, do like Jennifer did on her blog, maybe you have a blog, maybe you want to start a blog, get out there, do what you need to do to reflect. Maybe it's using your voice memo app in the car and just talking into it to remind yourself of some of the ideas that you want to resonate with yourself, or like I said to the class I was working with today, I used Peter Liljedahl's idea of create a note to your future forgetful self. Whatever it is make sure that you are reflecting so that it sticks for you. Hopefully today's message around storytelling is one that will have an impact and an influence on your lessons, and it helps students learn mathematics in a more effective sticky sort of way moving forward.

Jon Orr: Awesome. In order to ensure you don't miss out on new episodes of this podcast as we put them out every Monday morning, be sure to subscribe on your favorite podcast platform, and if you're there, leave us a review too please.

Kyle Pearce: Absolutely, check us out on YouTube and subscribe and hit that notification button. We are on social media platforms @makemathmoments, and my friends, show notes and links to resources, including full transcripts, can be found over on makemathmoments.com/episode153. Jon, we are at over 150 episodes, that is at makemathmoments.com/episode153.
Well, until next time, my Math Moment Maker friends, I'm Kyle Pearce.

Jon Orr: And I'm Jon Orr.

Kyle Pearce: High fives for us.

Jon Orr: And a high five for you.

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