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Correspondence from Mathematicians

Jennifer Horn, Amy Zamierowski and Rita Barger

Over the years, the journals of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) have published numerous articles on the history of mathematics and its use in teaching. These journals include Teaching Children Mathematics, Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School, and Mathematics Teacher. Thanks to the efforts of Convergence founding co-editor Frank Swetz, NCTM has allowed Convergence to republish (in pdf format) up to two articles from Mathematics Teacher annually since 2015.

One of the editors’ picks for 2019 is an article describing a mathematics history project that could be easily adapted for use in courses ranging from middle school mathematics through undergraduate history of mathematics.  

Jennifer Horn, Amy Zamierowski and Rita Barger, “Correspondence from Mathematicians," Mathematics Teacher, Vol. 93, No. 8 (November 2000), pp. 688–691. Reprinted with permission from Mathematics Teacher, ©2000 by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. All rights reserved.

 (Click on the title to download a pdf file of the article, “Correspondence from Mathematicians.”)

The co-authors designed this project as a means to provide their students with a research experience that allowed them to discover the origins of familiar mathematical concepts. The article's first author, Jennifer Horn, described her students' reactions to that experience in the closing paragraph of the article:

Overall, students seemed to enjoy the project and to welcome the change from our daily classroom routine. Indeed, several students who were normally a challenge for me to motivate began the project eagerly. Although I would like to report that all of them completed the project in exemplary fashion, that outcome did not occur. However, many of the letters that the students created were informative, interesting, and well written. Their creators were proud of their accomplishments and eager to try a similar project in the future. (Horn, Zamierowski & Barger, p. 691.)

In addition to providing a sample scoring rubric and a completed student letter, the article describes each of the project’s six stages in detail. To launch stage 1 of the project, “Choosing a mathematician,” the authors themselves employed a set of classroom posters entitled “Famous Mathematicians” that provided brief biographies of eighteen historical figures. (Editor's Note: The image of a sample poster that appeared in Figure 2 of the original Mathematics Teacher publication has been removed from the pdf reprint provided to Convergence, since NCTM does not own the copyright. With permission from the copyright holder, Walch Education, the image appears below.) Although that poster series is now out-of-print, the article offers suggestions for creating a classroom set of such posters based on biographical information available in print or online. The biography index of the MacTutor History of Mathematics archive is an excellent resource for such information.

Figure 2 from Correspondence from Mathematicians.

About NCTM

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) is the public voice of mathematics education, supporting teachers to ensure equitable mathematics learning of the highest quality for all students through vision, leadership, professional development, and research. It publishes five journals, one for every grade band, as well as one on the latest research and another for teacher educators. With 80,000 members and more than 200 Affiliates, NCTM is the world’s largest organization dedicated to improving mathematics education in prekindergarten through grade 12. For more information on NCTM membership, visit

Other Mathematics Teacher Articles in Convergence

Patricia R. Allaire and Robert E. Bradley, “Geometric Approaches to Quadratic Equations from Other Times and Places,” Mathematics Teacher, Vol. 94, No. 4 (April 2001), pp. 308–313, 319.

David M. Bressoud, "Historical Reflections on Teaching Trigonometry," Mathematics Teacher, Vol. 104, No. 2 (September 2010), pp. 106–112, plus three supplementary sections, "Hipparchus," "Euclid," and "Ptolemy."

Richard M. Davitt, “The Evolutionary Character of Mathematics,” Mathematics Teacher, Vol. 93, No. 8 (November 2000), pp. 692–694.

Keith Devlin, "The Pascal-Fermat Correspondence: How Mathematics Is Really Done," Mathematics Teacher, Vol. 103, No. 8 (April 2010), pp. 578–582.

Seán P. Madden, Jocelyne M. Comstock, and James P. Downing, “Poles, Parking Lots, & Mount Piton: Classroom Activities that Combine Astronomy, History, and Mathematics,” Mathematics Teacher, Vol. 100, No. 2 (September 2006), pp. 94–99.

Peter N. Oliver, “Pierre Varignon and the Parallelogram Theorem,” Mathematics Teacher, Vol. 94, No. 4 (April 2001), pp. 316-319.

Peter N. Oliver, “Consequences of the Varignon Parallelogram Theorem,” Mathematics Teacher, Vol. 94, No. 5 (May 2001), pp. 406-408.

Rheta N. Rubenstein and Randy K. Schwartz, “Word Histories: Melding Mathematics and Meanings,” The Mathematics Teacher, Vol. 93, No. 8 (November 2000), pp. 664–669.

Shai Simonson, “The Mathematics of Levi ben Gershon,” Mathematics Teacher, Vol. 93, No. 8 (November 2000), pp. 659-663.

Frank Swetz, “The ‘Piling Up of Squares’ in Ancient China,” Mathematics Teacher, Vol. 73, No. 1 (January 1977), pp. 72–79.

Jennifer Horn, Amy Zamierowski and Rita Barger, "Correspondence from Mathematicians," Convergence (December 2019), DOI:10.4169/convergence20191203