Malke Rosenfeld | Making with Math

Why did you become a Teaching Artist? 

For most of my life I had always wanted to teach but never really thought I knew something well enough to teach it. I started learning clogging and step dance in my mid-20s, and it quickly turned into a career. After a couple years of touring nationally and internationally with a professional percussive dance company, I left to start a Celtic music group. It was during this second chapter of my music and dance life, after intense touring and learning on the job, that I realized I finally had something I knew deeply.

What do you enjoy most about your art? 

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My art and art making has grown into a connected multi-disciplinary inquiry, focused by the common themes of improvisation, rhythm, pattern, constraint, space, design, and math. I think “what I know” best these days is what a math art making mindset looks and feels like. I recently started investigating iterative (repeated) crochet which is highly pattern based, and the the kinds of questions I am asking as I investigate this new media match the questions I asked myself early on in my dancing/choreographic career. These are the kinds of questions that brought me to my approach to teaching percussive dance and eventually led me to develop my flagship program Math in Your Feet.

For many people, the connections between math and dance are not obvious. Can you explain more? Perhaps, what were some of those initial questions that led to Math in Your Feet? 

There was a point in my teaching artist career, about five years in, where I started wondering if there might be math in what I was already doing with kids. During my transition from working as a TA in North and South Carolina to working in Indiana, I was a substitute teacher, often being placed in resource rooms. It was there that I saw how resistant and unhappy kids were with math. I thought about the high engagement and enjoyment of students in my dance workshops and residencies and wondered if there might be math in what I do and, if so, how could I bring them together in a meaningful way.

After a bunch of years teasing out that connection, I started getting very strong and positive feedback from mathematicians and colleagues with PhDs in math education. They validated that what we—the students, teachers, and I, collaboratively—were doing in Math in Your Feet was indeed full of real and important math concepts.  

So how did the study of dance and math then transition to other forms of art making and math?

The genesis of my math art programs outside of a dance context happened during an Arts for Learning Indiana summer program during the heatwave of 2012. We were in a  room on the very top floor without  air conditioning, and the kids were struggling to stay focused. My solution was to bring the kids downstairs to a tiny karate studio with A/C  but it didn’t have enough room to dance. This was during a time when I was also doing a lot of math and “making” with my seven year old daughter. I realized at that moment in the cool room that the math art projects I was designing for her included exactly the same math topics and processes we use in Math in Your Feet. Even if we couldn’t dance, we could continue to think about math in new ways.

Since then I’ve been fascinated by the challenge of designing rich, meaningful math art projects that are easy to start but go deep into mathematical concepts using the deceptively simple and inexpensive materials of paper, glue, tape, straws, and lots of color. Most of us never get the opportunity to use our mathematical minds like this. From what I’ve seen, it’s incredibly liberating for many of my makers to be creative within specifically designed mathematical constraints.

What is your favorite thing about being a Teaching Artist?

I love providing learners old and young with an opportunity to make something where there are multiple paths to multiple answers. The more I teach, the more I understand how question asking creates ripe opportunities for learning, my own and others’. At its core, mathematics is about question asking too. That’s what the “math processes/practices” are all about.

My favorite thing of all is creating math art projects that lead makers toward all sorts of unexpected new questions, pathways, and results. For example, I designed an activity where kids use 3″ straws and pipe cleaners to explore 3D geometry. During one recent workshop there was a  boy who made something brand new to him and to me! This is the reason we make art — to explore ideas we can’t necessarily express in other ways. The materials and modality for our math art become bridges for our thinking and our expression of new thoughts both artistic and mathematical.  

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Malke Rosenfeld is a dance teaching artist, author, editor, math explorer, and presenter whose interests focus on the learning that happens at the intersection of math and the moving body. She delights in creating rich environments in which children and adults can explore, make, play, and talk math based on their own questions and inclinations. Her book, Math on the Move: Engaging Students in Whole Body Learning, was published by Heinemann in 2016.

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