SHI's 'Math in a Basket' highlights overlap between math and art

Here’s one way to get a bunch of middle school kids to do math in the summer: disguise it as art.


Last week, during the first half of a two-week math and culture academy offered by Sealaska Heritage Institute, local students learned math through designing and weaving their own baskets. Beyond making math more engaging, the project highlights the idea that the distance between math and art isn’t always as wide as the regular school curriculum might make it seem.

During the workshop last Thursday, students drew on arts vocabulary and math concepts in equal measure. Discussions about color and design were interspersed with conversations about area and volume, length and width.

“Who can show me the perimeter?” asked instructor Samai Khom holding up a basket.

The presence of well known weaver Della Cheney at the workshop highlighted another important aspect to the project: basketry’s connection to the students’ cultural history.

Cheney told the students that in learning the basic weaving techniques of plaiting and twining, they now had the foundation for the sophisticated techniques they could see in finished Northwest Coast artworks such as Chilkat and Ravenstail robes, spruce root hats and basketry.

“You’ll see a lot of twining in our basketry and hats,” Cheney told the students. “You have learned how to weave hats, you have learned how to weave Ravenstail robes. You have learned how to Chilkat weave because you know how to do this.”

The two-week SHI academy is part of a larger project that seeks to improve students’ math skills through exposure to traditional Native art forms. It is based on the idea that art can provide a concrete way to demonstrate abstract mathematical ideas.

Sealaska Hertiage Institute organized the workshop through a nonprofit arts organization called Dramatic Results, who got the idea for Math in a Basket from teachers in North Carolina. The teachers, who had a background in basket making, trained Dramatic Results’ staff in how to lead the Math in a Basket workshops, after having led the program for 20 years themselves.

So far the workshops have been offered in California and North Carolina, and now Juneau.

Dramatic Results’ Founder and executive director Christi Wilkins said the focus of the program is on math, but that the links to art and cultural traditions are also important.

“We’re really here for math intervention, to address the persistent gap in math performances,” she said. “Our goal is to have them demonstrate an improvement in their comfort in their skill set in math, as well as the traditional arts and to be able to see -- because of Della and other folks here, -- how the baskets integrate with cultural basket making.”

Earlier this year, teachers from local middle schools visited Dramatic Results in California to receive training in the Math in a Basket program. One of those teachers, Jeannie Drapeaux, who works at Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School, said she plans to offer it to kids who need extra math help during class prep time.

During this week’s workshops, students have been working with visiting artist Louie Gong in a workshop called “Walking in Two Worlds” in which they’ve been exploring issues of Native identity through designing a unique set of shoes. The academy runs through June 29 at the Vocational Training & Resource Center.

The program is funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Alaska Native Education Program.

Sealaska Heritage Institute was founded in 1980 to promote cultural diversity and cross-cultural understanding. The institute is governed by a Board of Trustees and guided by a Council of Traditional Scholars. Its mission is to perpetuate and enhance Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian cultures of Southeast Alaska.

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