Math Journal Graffiti | David Rufo

In the 1940s photographer Helen Levitt went to Spanish Harlem to document children’s street drawings made of chalk on asphalt, concrete, and stone. In his essay “Children as Visionaries,” Robert Coles described the children as feeling “impelled to make their various marks” on a world “whose children still had some visual independence” [1]. I thought of these scrawled markings and bygone messages as I stumbled upon a crate of old student math workbooks.

I have always been interested in the marks people make: the caves of Lascaux with their galloping sepia and ebony herds, to the libidinous Pompeian inscriptions, and more recently, the cryptic musings of American artists such as Cy Twombly and Jean-Michel Basquiat. The marking in the workbooks struck me as being made by children who were searching for some type of visual and expressionistic independence in the midst of institutionalized conventions and constraints. They enacted a hidden graffiti within pages normally reserved for addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. American schools have become rife with rules, routines, and rituals, which over time become entrenched within the culture of schools establishing narrow and constrictive frameworks that impede creative potential.

Seven years ago when I had the group of students who made these marks, I was just beginning to wrestle with questions about student agency in the classroom and how that agency informed pedagogical practices, especially in the area of creativity. Since that time my classroom practices have gone through a number transformations and iterations, eventually becoming a space where my students had complete ownership and were free to mark the walls and tables, paint the furniture, or suspend their creations on bits of string or wire from the ceiling.

What I find so intriguing about the early markings is that they were created surreptitiously. Years ago my classroom was a much more restrictive environment. Although the workbooks had the students’ names inscribed on the covers and were kept in their cubbies, they were not the students’ property to do with as they wished. The expectation was that the workbooks were only to be used for math-specific purposes. But the creativity of children is persistent. While doing math, my students also drew symbols of stars, hearts, and smiley faces. They created battle scenes, humorous figures, and abstract pictures. Edges were decorated, pages were punctured, text was crossed out and illustrations obliterated. As with the children who inhabited Spanish Harlem in the early 1940s, it is evident that my students also felt impelled to make their marks upon the world, even if that world was limited to a few pages in a math workbook.

[1] Levitt, H. & Coles, R. (2002). In the street: Chalk drawings and messages, New York City, 1938-1948. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

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