Mathematics Photo Essay

PHOTOS: Inspired by Jonesboro’s Math Superhero

February 06, 2023 4 min read
Students walk past pennants for various universities and colleges in the hallway at Adamson Middle School.
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It was quiet when I visited Adamson Middle School with Tonya Clarke just a few days before the start of winter break.

Clarke, the coordinator of K–12 mathematics for Clayton County public schools in Jonesboro, Ga., is responsible for guiding the math instruction methods for the entire county.

She leads the team of math instructional coaches, who work hands-on with teachers.

During the school year, Clarke and her squad of coaches visit and observe classrooms to gain a better understanding of how teachers are conveying certain principles to students—and to think through which tricks might unlock a student’s understanding of them.

Tonya Clarke, coordinator of K–12 mathematics in the division of school leadership and improvement for Clayton County Public Schools in Jonesboro, Ga., helps students with geometry while observing an 8th grade math class at Adamson Middle School.

When we walked into Ms. J. Christopher’s 8th grade math room, the teacher walked from table to table in a red Santa hat as students huddled around worksheets trying to determine if the graphs printed on them represented a function or not. She had just delivered the lesson that she was now hoping her students would implement and, unsurprisingly, they were hitting some road bumps.

As Christopher worked with one group, Clarke visited another table and quietly made a suggestion about the way students could think about the problem they were wrestling with, pointing at different portions of the graph and speaking with a stern warmth that invoked confidence in the students.

Photographing students in a classroom can be challenging. Think back to your own middle school days: When an unknown individual walked into your room (equipped with a camera no less), it was a bit of an event. As a documentary photographer, that’s the last thing I want. It can so intensely disrupt the nature of what I’m trying to document that it becomes a dishonest portrayal.

Typically, this manifests in students throwing up deuces at the camera every time I raise it to my eye or in the form of a performed rigidity so tense that I imagine the teacher has threatened the students’ recess time if they cut up in front of me. Fortunately, this classroom was calm and comfy, and I was greeted with only a couple poses towards my lens, which I returned with the snap of the camera shutter and a smile.

As Clarke spoke with the students, I noticed she was wearing a T-shirt with a superhero on it—a black woman with space buns in her hair, a black bodysuit and a red cape billowing behind her. I later learned this was one of her favorite superheroes from Midnight Comics, a character named Shameka Day, alias The Grey, an experimental physicist who has created and can control a black hole.

A student walks past as Tonya Clarke, coordinator of K–12 mathematics in the division of school leadership and improvement for Clayton County Public Schools in Jonesboro, Ga., poses for a photo in the hallway at Adamson Middle School.

After we left the classroom, I made some portraits of Clarke in the halls of the building. Schools typically offer long halls lined with the repetitive shapes of colorful lockers that, when photographed from the center, lead your eye, from all four corners of a photo, to a centered vanishing point. This makes for an interesting and striking place to place a portrait subject.

I made sure that we hung around in the hallway long enough for classes to change over—that exhilarating moment when students briefly get to let out the pent up energy they’ve built up in their rooms. I made an effort to make a portrait of Clarke as students were sort of swarming by in the hallway, using a low shutter speed so my flash would capture her with clarity while rendering the students’ movements around her as energetic blurs. The resulting photo shows Clarke with an unexpectedly well-ordered, single-file line of students walking past her—many giving us looks of: “What are y’all doing?”

It’s fitting that Clarke finds inspiration in The Grey, a character whose powers stem from hard work and intellect. She sees math as not just a means of getting a job and making a living, but also of unlocking our understanding of the world and ourselves.

Imagine a student overcoming the hurdle of identifying functions in a graph. If one day their brains are able to find meaning in a series of lines laid upon another grid of lines that days before appeared inscrutable, what else can the squishy thing rattling around behind their eyes do?

Stickers on the office door of Tonya Clarke, coordinator of K–12 mathematics in the division of school leadership and improvement for Clayton County Public Schools in Jonesboro, Ga.

This is the kind of epiphany that Clarke works for. It’s not what you can learn—it’s that you can learn and that there is infinite possibility in that act. She acknowledges that these “aha” moments don’t always come in the classroom.

To this end, she and her team were responsible for ideating and implementing a “math walk” in Clayton County International Park where pedestrians can find large math-y installations painted on the ground: a colorful grid of dots, the intersecting circles of a Venn diagram, or a dashed timeline in rainbow colors. There are no instructions, but the paintings are as familiar as the shapes that they’ve learned about in the classroom and presented in a way that invites play and curiosity.

To test it out, Clarke and her colleagues invented a rock-throwing game along the dashed timeline—who could get their rock closest to the last person’s? Could they hopscotch their way down to it and back? As they laughed and playfully contested the rules they’d just made up, it was clear the installation had passed the test. They couldn’t wait to come back to the park with their students.

Tonya Clarke, coordinator of K–12 mathematics in the division of school leadership and improvement for Clayton County Public Schools in Jonesboro, Ga., and her teammates play around a newly painted math-related installation at the Clayton County International Park.

— Dustin Chambers for Education Week

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