THIS is a Math Book?
by Julie Brennan
This fun, imaginative article offers examples of how ordinary children's books can become living math lessons.
Mathematics is, quite simply, the science of patterns. When we get beyond our notions that math = arithmetic, this opens a whole new world of "math" literature for us. Even my youngest children get this.
I've been going through all of our picture and story books of late looking for hidden treasures for the literature based math classes I'll be teaching this fall. Time after time, I have found math in very unexpected places. As it is fresh in my memory from this morning, I'll share the dialogue I had with my 6 y/o daughter (and 8 y/o son listening on the sidelines) while reading The Emperor and the Kite, by Jane Yolen, one of our favorite authors.
Me: "Do you think this is a math book? Let's see if we can find math in it.
'Once in ancient China there lived a princess who was the fourth daughter of the emperor.'  hey, do you hear math??"
Delenn: "Yeah! 'Fourth' means she's the fourth, one, two, three, four!" (showing on fingers)
Me: "'She was very tiny.' Hey, more math! What does that tell you, she was 'tiny'?"
Delenn: "Tiny means really really small, like  big, little, tiny." (again using hands to demonstrate)
Me, reading again: "'In fact, she was so tiny her name was Djeow Seow, which means 'the smallest one.' What does that tell you?"
Delenn: "That she's the tiniest!"
I turn the page where the four brothers are introduced, like "four rising suns in the eyes of their father." My fouryearold counts the sons, and the four suns, noting the coupling of the numbers, one son for each sun. I turn the page again and we see three women:
Me: "How many sisters does Djeow Seow have?"
Delenn: "Three! and there are three moons, one for each sister!" (I had not read that part yet, but of course, the text supported this)
Me: "How did we know she had three sisters?"
Delenn: "Because Djeow Seow was the fourth daughter (showing four fingers), so that means she had sister one, two, three bigger than her!"
After finishing this really wonderful tale where Djeow Seow, the tiniest daughter, saves the emperor's dynasty with quiet ingenuity, I went on to some other picture books. We read Chrysanthemum, by Kevin Henkes. Again, no obvious math here, and I just settled in to read the story. But midway through, we got to the page where Chrysanthemum is introduced to her kindergarten class, and, of course, the length of her name becomes a major source of attention! There's a page that shows all of the children in the class with monosyllabic names  Don, Eve, Kay, Al, etc., and then at the end comes Rita, Victoria, and Chrysanthemum. I stop, look at the page and become inspired.
Me: "Hmmm, DJ, I wonder, just looking at this, can you *see* the average number of letters if the kids' names?" He stares at the page not understanding my question, and does some quick multiplication in his head of 3 times 15 to get 45 letters on the page . . .
"What I mean is, many of the names have three letters. And here is a 4 letter name  Lois  next to a 2 letter name  Also, those average 3 letter each if you move the 's' to Al's box . . . the same for Jo and Rita . . . so, until you get to Victoria and Chrysanthemum, what do you see?"
DJ: "Three letters per name, yeah, all the way to Rita."
Delenn: "I can count the letters in Chrysanthemum! (8 y/o threatening to do so before she can) . . . 13!"
Me: "Hmmm, but 'Victoria' *sounds* almost as long as 'Chrysanthemum' . . . I wonder why? DJ, what are the average syllables per name?"
DJ puts on his teaching hat to tell Delenn what a syllable is . . and then notes one syllable names definitely prevail, we have a couple 2 syllable words, but then 'Chrysanthemum' has four . . . but so does 'Victoria.'
Me: "That's interesting, because the one name has 13 letters and the second has only 8, barely half, but the same number of syllables . . " Reading further Victoria notes Chrysanthemum's name is so long it doesn't fit on her name tag and has half as many letters as the alphabet!
DJ: "But are any of the letters repeated? It's not *really* half . ." (Great point, half as many letters, but only in count, not type, we note there is more than one "m") . . DJ then says,
"The longest name I know is Tikki Tikki Tembo No Sa Rembo Chari Bari Ruchi Pip Peri Pembo" (counting on his fingers he gets) "21 syllables!"
Delenn's counting the same time and gets the "Chari Bari Ruchi" part mixed up into 3 vs. 6, wants to argue the point, so all together we say the name and count on our fingers VERY SLOWLY, verifying that we get 10 fingers plus 10 fingers again plus 1 = 21 syllables. Which leads of course to reading Tikki Tikki Tembo again, and comparing THAT name this the monosyllabic name of his brother "Chang" . . .
Okay, we did finish the story of Chrysanthemum who was saved from lifelong trauma over her name by Mrs. Twinkle, the music teacher, whom the class adored and whom they found out was named "Delphinium" after a flower (and of course has four syllables) too.
That's how my children turn ordinary picture books into math books without a lot of fuss and "planning". Yes, we read wonderful math books like Greg Tang's Math Fables, finding 5's, 10's and skip counting our way through combinations. But math in the form of patterns, order and comparison is in our lives, everywhere. So even my four year old can see patterns in a sweet book such as Some Things Go Together, by Charlotte Zolotow, a book about pairs, pairs of matching things, relationships, the rhyming words are in pairs, the verses are in pairs . . . there's a pattern, and THAT makes it a math book, valuable for identifying and discerning mathematical patterns and relationships, a critical foundational skill necessary to truly understand the abstract symbolic notation we begin introducing as "number" and arithmetic.
Two great resources to read on this that contains many examples and dialogues are Whitin & Wilde, It's The Story That Counts and Read Any Good Math Lately.
Copyright 2004 Julie Brennan
About the Author:
Julie is a certified public accountant who left a full time professional career to homeschool her four children. She wished to communicate a love of applied mathematics and history in a living, practical sense to her children, and developed a way of learning math that blended these in a joyful way  'living math'. She currently facilitates a discussion list for living math topics and is writing and teaching living math through history courses for K through high school homeschooled students.
Growing Together Family Learning Newsletter, Vol. 1, No. 1, Page 12
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