Community Gardens and Decolonizing Math Nostalgia


Feeling the liberties of being a post-doc, I joined Dr. Chao’s class on the Teaching and Learning of Mathematics in Grades PreK – 3 in their community mathematics walk trip. I am from Aleppo, Syria. I often tell others. A statement I make with lots of unquestioned pride and urban privilege that fails to understand how a community garden will connect me to understanding decolonizing ways of knowing math. The only common denominator between the garden and math was their capacity to remind me of my dad.


Like every day, I had what appears to be a higher dose of missing my dad, this Tuesday afternoon. Missing him only seems exponential. My dad had a special skill of turning buying groceries into an art of encounters that I had the treat of watching and participating in twice every week. Fresh fruits and vegetables used to be a way of life in Aleppo, not an exclusive occasion reserved for a fresh market gala of sorts, or a sterile grocery store. One day, as he was teaching me how to buy produce, he encouraged me to smell each apple I was putting in the grocery bag because each apple “had a life of its own” and a “way of being” and “tasting” that is unique from any other apple. He taught me to do that with each pepper, parsley, mind, tomato, and everything in between. Of course, like the case with my parents, their words often went so high above my head that I think I only understood what he meant after he passed away. His excitement about grocery shopping to me was as enigmatic as the process he followed to add up, multiply, and divide any range of numbers no matter how large or small without a calculator or a piece of paper, or at least this is how it appeared to me.  I asked my dad once how he decided to become a civil engineer. He responded, “I was an artist first”, then, his father told him to put “his art to use” so that’s how he chose engineering. I tried to find pictures of my dad in his construction sites. It was hard for me to collect these displaced memories. Yet, it was even harder because he rarely took pictures of his projects. His lack of desire to take pictures of what he worked on was often the center of heated discussions between him and me. He would remark something along the lines that he experienced these projects and breathed them and that’s what mattered to him. Will I ever understand the wisdom of my parents?! I don’t really know.

A picture of my dad when he was the same age as my daughter Nora (5 years old)

Among all these memories, emotions, and the smells of the garden, Dr. Chao asks Jazmyn Benjamin the community garden organizer, if she can show us some of the ways she connects the community garden to math when students from the neighboring school visit. Demonstrating how much math there is in the garden for children, Jazmyn pulls a thread and wraps it around a pumpkin. Then, she takes the thread she had used to measure the circumference of the pumpkin and puts it to the measuring stick. She points to the hand-made scale and demonstrates how the kids learn to weigh different produce using it. I remembered my dad again and the detours we took on our road trips to Lattakia, a city on the Mediterranean and charting through beautiful mountains to get there. I remembered the many farmers that used handmade scales almost identical to the one Jazmyn used in this community garden.

Jazmyn Benjamin showing the scales she and other teachers use to teach early childhood math to students from Highland Elementary

Jazmyn teaching Nora (my daughter) about understanding roots and lettuce

More emotions started to stir. Yes, math is emotional. Math is not neutral. Math can be violent, but math can be beautiful. Our bodies are also not neutral. And in the memories I related are stories of violence, hope, and love.  I am baffled that until this community walk, I was not recognizing that what I was seeing through these grocery shopping excursions and conversing with farmers was math because I had not decoded it as such. It was not formalized as “academic math”. It had no resemblance to what I used to learn at school, but also that I could not recognize that the farmer can do math even though almost every math problem was about “you went to the grocery store, you bought this x [س] items and this much of y [ع] how much money do you still have…etc?”. In these word problem, the farmer, or the maker of whatever I was buying was rarely present, in my retrospective memory. Either the math in these word problems submerged everything else, or the farmer did not have any agency to tell me how much x and y cost. The farmer and the makers of things had no presence or capacity of articulation. I wondered how we’ve over time eliminated humanity and humans out of math.

As I am surrounded by the early childhood cohort questions about how the community garden teaches children math, particularly the composting site, I get more overwhelmed in thinking about the very ways I was socialized in math. Ways that were both detrimental to my own learning as well as marginalizing to ways of knowing math that I had been surrounded by and I had learned not value. I was socialized to recognize certain people and their bodies as incapable of doing math. I questioned how teachers, including myself, are conditioned to read certain bodies as incapable of doing math. The ways some literacy teachers read and write certain bodies are as incapable of doing literacy. How did I become so ignorant? How did I come to learn that if math was not packaged in an academic sterile school setting, it no longer becomes math and therefore, I could not decode the diverse ways I learned and participated in math as such? I learned a way of looking at math and society that privileges certain ways of knowing that are only valued if they are Eurocentric. I learned about the amazing Arab and Muslim mathematicians, yet I have internalized a form of oppression that makes me belitle my own knowelges unconsciously at times.

I think back to the community garden, and how many similar experiences like it I had in Syria, juxtaposed by the destruction of such communities, knowledges, through a seemingly endless geopolitical war. I remember the resilience of the people in my city and their ways of finding hope amongst anything over time and history.

I became even more nostalgic to the Syrian farmers and the ways they do math and I wonder how much of it is left? I think of how much math there is in the Wara’ Enab (Grape leaves) that my mother used to make and cook. How much rice and meat, and the time she needed to plan to create enough of it for a family of 8.

I connect to the endless times she jotted down numbers and calculations as she made her crochets, and hand-made woolen outfits she made for me. As a child, my mother used to assure me about her mathematical aptitude, “I am really good at math”. But she only had a high school diploma. The person that was really “good at math”, in my eyes, was my oldest sister. She was the civil engineer who wanted to be an architect but her scores were too high. I saw my sister do everything “right” play the piano, paint, draw and do everything in between. But she was never an “artist”, at least in my eyes. She was the smart one at math. In retrospect, I don’t recall when my image of myself as a “good” at math was broken. I know exactly when my confidence in my writing was destroyed as an English learner back when I was 16, but not math. By the time I was 15 I have already internalized that I am just purely not good at it regardless of my semi-perfect scores, then! I wondered if it were my fourth-grade math test in which my score was 8 out of 10. Whatever it is, I doubted my mother’s assurances that she is good at math. She is a woman who had 6 children and earned her high school degree while she had kids. Her dreams of going to college never martialized. Her scores fell one point short than the required standard of admission for the particular field she wanted to pursue. I think of the many crushed dreams of people who fell one point short on some arbitrary test!

wearing one of the outfits my mom knitted for me when I was 7 years old.


A close up of the design on my dress

I wanted to add a sketch of my sister’s beautifully designed buildings. She did not have much documented when she left  Aleppo. I think of creative ways we have to collect our memories. Can ones’ efforts to collect their displaced memory be quantifiable and shaped by algorithms suited to capitalist economies? What would that equation look like if one is to do so? I real back on focus on the intricate designs of my mother’s work.

I was also unhappy because I learned I am going to have a younger brother who would steal all my thunder later on.

A close of up of the designs and patterns on the dress my mom made.

I roam in my thinking. I smile with the sour-sweet taste submerging my sense of pomegranate juice that used to be so popular at this time of year! How many pomegranates does it take to make a freshly squeezed cup of juice at the vitamin shops in Aleppo? I wondered about the kind of math involved in the works of artists in Khan El-Shuna between the artistry of weavers, brass and silver carvers and their designs of beautiful geometric patterns. I wonder why the math problems I had in school were from a book published or modeled after a book in the U.S. or France? I wonder about all the ideologies I learned about math and where did they come from. Is the way I understand math just my own perceptions or the systemic issues at play have shaped my ideologies around math since the early years of my childhood. I remember the subversive argument I made at a women’s gathering when one of the engineer women in the group bragged about how good she is algebra where I made an honest statement without intending to hurt anyone, “I was never really good at Algebra. I always loved geometry”. The woman told me that algebra is far more difficult than geometry. I sensed as a hint of pride in her voice. Saving my pride and feeling that my intelligence has been insulted, I respond with a subversive act “maybe I loved geometry because it requires imagination”. But her comment left me wondering for days if she thought I was “not good at math” just because she knows I am in education! Was my body as an educator irreconcilable with being mathematically inclines?

The door was the only intact picture I can take of this once beautiful place (still beautiful)

I bought this box from Khan El Shuna in 2011

What remains of Khan El Shuna

I wonder how many more bullets? How many more bombs? What is the equation between broken hearts, how much more quantifiable love can be lost before these economies of war become saturated? I wonder, how much, in using math that is not our own, do we erode mathematical ways of knowing that we already know? Mathematical ways of knowing that I used to see every day as a child and I was taught by schools and teachers to ignore. I think back to Khan El Shuna and how much it was a part of my childhood. I remember the joke some of my female friends and I made talking about the number of years it would take us to save enough money to buy the café shop that’s right in front of Aleppo’s magnificent castle. How does colonization manifest itself in language? and How much modes of colonization can a person unpack in less than a 100 meters radius in a place like Aleppo?

The irony of the #I believe in Aleppo

but I also think of the inflation rate in Syria just on a mini-scale of buying a small bag of peanuts from this marvelous stall?

Lots to unpack in this picture!

I push myself to focus on the community garden, but I continue pondering and wandering, questioning what would math look like when we wrap it around our cultural practices, realities, and struggles.  How do we teach children to resist the impending unsaturated violence of mathematical ideologies that teach them to hate their own ways of thinking, like I learned to hate mine, and demean their own thinking, or enlarges their superiority over their classmates and family members?  Is it ever possible to give children the confidence to recognize they are “good at math” regardless of what the teacher says, or the test scores indicate and evidence when such violence is so salient around them and the adults don’t seem to understand the violence they are imposing? Notions of “good at math” that are wrapped with ideologies about gender, class, and, race ultimately deciding whose bodies are mathematically inclined and whose bodies aren’t. I shift to my parent mode. I think about my daughters who are only 5 and 2 years old. How can I teach them to resist when I think of myself as not mathematically inclined or competent? How do I rid them gendered mathematical violence? I become even more comfortable because the week before my 5-year-old already told me girls are not good at math, and boys are better! She told me how a family member told her smart kids do math! Will I be able to give my daughters a way to resist?

As we are leaving the community garden, I smell the herbs garden in ways that rejuvenates my soul as to remind me of the beauty of the community where the garden lies. The smell pulls me out of my resentments about math. Finding culturally sustaining ways of doing math is not that difficult after all. Maybe, these would be the topics for future blog posts that I must write and probably explore. I glance back at the community garden and recognize that to me it resembles hope of regaining what has been lost. It reminded me of the ancient surviving hope of Aleppo, my city. The smell of the herb garden reminded of the mint bunches at home.  The sunflowers tell me that my decolonizing math nostalgia is a sign of hope.