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The Fictional Story in the Classroom

Mayeli is a good high school student but she doesn’t want anything to do with reading Life is a Dream, the play we are studying in our Literature class. And you need to read Life is a Dream because, well, it’s on the syllabus and it changed so many people’s lives! But Mayeli can’t get into Life is a Dream. Right now the play is an inhospitable and iron-clad place.

Until one morning, the physics professor gave a quick class on quantum physics and Mayeli realized that your senses play tricks on you. When she thinks she is touching a table, in reality she is only feeling the vibration of the table, her hand and the table never touch. And Mayeli pulled at the thread and thought: ‘And what if it doesn’t stop there?’ ‘What if everything is an illusion, a trick played by the senses?’ ‘What if everything is a dream?’ Then she remembered that in her Literature class they were reading a play about a prisoner who was constantly being told that his reality was a dream. And she thought: ‘And what if I was like Segisberto, the protagonist of Life is a Dream?’ And Mayeli was hooked on the play. But, do you know why? Because before that, she asked herself a question.

The protagonist of Life is a Dream is called Segismundo, not Segisberto, but that doesn’t matter. Mayeli will remember that later. Because now, Mayeli has found a way into the play. Her way in, the way that suits her best. And it was all thanks to physics. Thanks to a connection.

Math and Life

Is this not, in a way, the job of a teacher? To design different ways into subjects that awaken questions in different types of students. To strengthen connections between fields of knowledge and between different ways of learning so that everyone is welcome to the knowledge party. Few sentences are as true as this one: In class, the more different we are, the more we laugh.

Now we are in math class: Mayeli finds it easier to get to the challenges and problems straight from abstraction. However, Jacob, in his third year of middle school, needs to first manipulate and then move onto abstraction. And Dunia, in her first year of middle school, right now doesn’t do either. Also, as it has been said to her for so many years (and she has said it to herself too) that math isn’t for her, she hardly tries. This is the tragedy of self-fulfilling prophecies. Of self-limiting thoughts.

But one day, in a math class in the first year of middle school, a 5-minute video was played in which a fictional character, a girl like her, Sam, explained some problems she was having that reminded Dunia of her own problems. Sam also thought that math wasn’t for her and that it is boring because she hadn’t yet found her way into it. Sam didn’t know her place in the world either, nor did she know how to order the chaos surrounding her. Dunia was interested in what Sam was saying and wanted to know more.

The following week, thanks to Sam, Dunia discovered that one day a Sumerian needed to make a written record of the amount of cows owed to their neighbor and they did so closing some clay cones inside a ball that was also made of clay and thought, ‘nice, that’s how written numbers were invented’. And another day she discovered the cover-up strategy to solve an algebraic challenge is also a strategy to solve problems in life.

Sam’s Journey

This fictional series that Dunia saw in class was called Sam’s Journey. Innovamat students watch it in the first two years of middle school. It’s a story about a 14-year-old girl who one day turned up in a strange world with no idea how she got there or what was waiting for her. Similar to how all students feel at that age. Bit by bit she discovers what she is doing there and how it is related to the characters she meets who are all important historical mathematicians. So, Sam, and students like Dunia, will understand that math is not just an abstraction and much less a simple tool but a complex and beautiful language that helps explore and understand the world. And that math advances following the needs of real people and not… curriculums. 

For example, they will learn the relationship between powers and Archimedes’ need to work with huge numbers, that the western world was slow to accept the arrival of integers because they hadn’t yet asked the necessary questions, that Brahmagupta died thinking that a number divided by 0 is 0, which will help Dunia to remember that mistakes are the foundations for future truths. And that the first winner of the Fields Medal, the Iranian, Maryam Mirzakhani, wanted to be a writer before falling in love with math in middle school (which is curiously the same age as Sam and Dunia who, by the way, also felt pre-disposed to writing).

So, from the life of Sam, Dunia and other students will remember that math and life are intimately linked, because it is a language to discover the world, enjoy it and improve it. All these cultural references both connect to the student’s lives and broaden them. Asterix and Obelix, BTS, Harry Potter and Spirited Away in math class? Yes, of course! The brain is a powerful center of meaningful connections and our students know it. In fact, that is how they learn, by connecting.

Sam and Socioemotional Skills

Lastly, following Sam’s journey through the world of math so closely allows us to humanize and introduce socio-affective skills in the math classroom. Fear of mistakes, responsibility, perseverance, breaking self-fulfilling prophecies and self-limiting thoughts. And also guaranteed success in the fight against mathematic anxiety. By introducing fiction to the math classroom, students find a mirror into which both their fears are reflected and also a way of fighting them. And it is a new door to mathematic knowledge and skills for students who before, maybe, didn’t know how to get in.

  • Verónica Sánchez Orpella

    Studied Humanities and Journalism in the Universidad Pompeu Fabra. She has given Literature classes in school in Barcelona and New York. Currently she combines teaching and curricular coordination in L’Horitzó (Barcelona) with scriptwriting for the series, Sam’s Journey, at Innovamat. In 2014 she won the Carlemany Prize with the young adult novel Coses que no podrem evitar (Columna)

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