Monday, May 5, 2014

Why play math?

Imagine that you are growing up in a world where very few people read books.  At the same time, the importance of Reading is stressed in school because educators and politicians are alarmed at the loss of literacy in your world.

In elementary school you learn the alphabet and how to put two or more letters together to make sounds to prepare you for the study of Phonics in high school.  This is fun at first because you love making sounds.  But sometimes you make a sound that your teacher says is wrong, and when you ask why she just says, “English doesn’t use that combination.”

You also learn to define things like “noun” and “verb” and how to tell one from the other.  In high school you’ll be studying Grammar and putting all this together, but for now you memorize terms in order to lay the foundation for that study.  It’s fun knowing things, and you enjoy trying to categorize all the words you know.

But sometimes you have trouble with a word.  During a beginning Diagramming lesson one day, you write the sentence “I am reading,” on the blackboard and mark “reading” as a verb, which the teacher says is wrong.  It looks like a verb and when you ask her why it’s wrong she says it’s really a noun – it belongs to a special class of nouns that you won’t be studying until later, so for now your sentences should only use words covered in class.   She suggests you write, “I read,” instead, which you do, but all the same it feels insultingly childish.

By middle school, students are starting to complain about Reading class.  “Why do we have to learn this stuff anyway?”  Your teachers always say that reading is important.  When you’re older you’ll need to fill out an application to get your driver’s license.  If you go to college you’ll need to be able to read Literature and Poetry, and then when you’re grown up you might need to be able to read the news instead of watching it.  And even if you never use it after you leave school, studying Reading sharpens your thinking skills.

Finally, in ninth grade, your Grammar teacher gives you a sentence to diagram for your homework:

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought I summon up remembrance of things past, I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought, and with old woes new wail my dear times’ waste:  Then can I drown an eye, unus’d to flow, for precious friends hid in death’s dateless night.

Your mom, who loves Reading, even though she isn’t a professional Reader, sits down to help you with this insane work, but she spends at least ten minutes waxing eloquent about how beautifully the words express pain and loss and memory, when all you want is just to get the blasted homework done so you don’t fail the class and have to repeat it.

Of course, you already know where I’m going with this – that it’s analogous to my experience with studying math in school, and maybe yours too, and that this is what I want to avoid in teaching math to my own children.

The very first assignment in the Natural Math class I mentioned last week was to write down my goals and dreams for my own children as it relates to math.  Here’s what I wrote for the class:

I want my children’s experience of math to be similar to our experience with poetry. We read some every day, whether it’s fun and sweet things by AA Milne or Lewis Carroll or Robert Louis Stevenson, or rich, meaty stuff, like Spenser’s Fairy Queen and GK Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse. Through the course of the day, favorite lines from poetry might come up, or someone might invent a rhyming game on the spur of the moment, or one of us might use the words of a poem to express a feeling or idea or just to make everyone laugh. In any case, we live in a sea of beautiful words that lead us into imaginary worlds, and help us understand the world we live in.

From what I’ve been reading about math lately, it seems that it’s like that -- that it’s a language, it’s a doorway into a world of ideas, and a way of understanding and relating to the world we live in. I want my children to be as much at home in that world as they are in the worlds of poetry and music.

We also do this with lines from favorite books, movies, and songs.  We tell each other stories – I retell my children’s birth stories on their birthday each year, my husband makes up stories to tell at bedtime, we tell stories our parents have handed down to us about their childhoods.  From the time they were tiny my children were telling stories with their blocks and dolls and little cars, and while drawing and painting.

This comes to us so naturally that it’s hard realize how much we play with words and stories long before I teach our children to read and write.

But the same thing is not true of math.  I have never known how to provide a math-rich environment so that when my children reached the age for the formal study of mathematics they’d have all that experience and play as a foundation to build on.

That’s why I’m reading books and blogs on playing with math and taking this class.  It’s remedial education for myself as well as for my children.

And it really is helping.  The other day Mike had bought some Kit Kat bars for a treat and gave them to me to break in half and pass out.  As I was doing it, some of them broke into quarters, so I told my children, “You may have one medium-size piece, or two small pieces, or half of a large piece.”

Of course someone said, “That’s all the same,” and we laughed and ate the treat.

That sounds dumb, but it’s a baby step – honestly it wouldn’t have occurred to me to make a joke like that before.  I’ve told you I was math-phobe, right?


  1. I love your analogy! I never loved math - in elementary, middle, or high school. I still don't know how I ended up teaching math! Once my eyes were opened to how creative and interesting math could be, there was no turning back. Have fun, and good luck!


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