Art, Activism, and Mathematics

Spirit Guardians, block print with watercolor
Spirit Guardians, block print with watercolor

I’m preparing to teach a class on sustainability and mathematics this January–it’s one of my favorite topics because it’s so personally meaningful and the math is really interesting.

So far I’ve been able to adapt it to classes ranging from pre-Algebra to pre-Calculus. When I teach it this next time, I really want to make sure I add a personal reflection and artistic piece to the class. The math by itself is great, but it’s easy to get depressed when looking at the numbers around oil consumption, population growth, and CO2 levels. The last thing I want to do is leave a group of 13 year olds feeling hopeless.

I’ve been reading several different books looking for inspiration: Oil and Honey by Bill McKibben, Blessed Unrest by Paul Hawken, and the Spiritual Ecology anthology. But I’ve found them all too long, or too complex, or too esoteric for the age group I’m trying to reach. This morning I read an interview of Terry Tempest Williams in Yes! Magazine. I was immediately struck, not by the words, but by the photographs accompanying the interview. They are all photographs she took while teaching “The Ecology of Residency” in Montana. What I love about them is that they remind me of my block prints, and they have shown me a connection between my art and my desire to be more of an activist through that art.

The interviewer emphasizes Williams’ practice of “ground truthing,” or seeking direct contact with the land to verify what external reports might say. What better way to really penetrate the truth of the land than through creating art? I would love to have my students get outside, take photos, (make block prints?) as part of a sustainability and mathematics class. How practical that will be with only 3 weeks, I don’t know. But I’m excited to have found a connection between things that have always seemed so separate yet so important to me–and I’m excited to pass the connections on to my students, if possible.

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