Monday, November 24, 2008

It's "Math-Lit" But Is It Good Lit?

I am just back from San Antonio, where I spoke at NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English). An annual appearance at NCTM (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics) has been on my agenda since 1996 but this was my first NCTE. I started thinking about similarities and differences between the two organizations in how they encourage teachers to use literature, and I mostly came up with similarities. And then I remembered a book on my shelf at home that makes that point exactly, focusing on mathematical literature. Appropriately, the book is published jointly by NCTM and NCTE. If I could put just one resource in the hands of a teacher wanting to mine the many treasures of “math-lit” as a teaching tool for both mathematics and language arts, this would be the book.

New Visions for Linking Literature and Mathematics by David J. Whitin and Phyllis Whitin is more than a resource book about using math-related literature in the classroom. It does indeed illustrate a myriad
ways that teachers can use a wide range of quality b
ooks to support both math and literacy. But note the word “quality.” In addition to providing examples (plenty!) and illustrating how teachers have used them (impressive!), it tells you how to judge mathematical literature. That’s where New Visions differs from any other resource book I’ve seen. “Many (math-related books) seem more like workbooks than stories,” write the Whitins and I agree wholeheartedly. “Some give detailed prescriptions for reading, much like a teaching manual for a basal reader, while others mask doses of ‘skills’ with comical illustrations or popular food products…” Bottom line: not all math lit is created equal, and New Visions shows you how to evaluate. It even shows why some books just don’t make the grade, and it does name names. Harsh! But someone had to do it.

The Whitins put forth four criteria as a guide for judging mathematical literature as worthy. They then select one book as exemplary, showing how it makes the grade in all four areas. More on that later. Here are their criteria with an example of a book that stands out in each category.

1. Mathematical integrity Stories and literature have enormous value when they inspire children to apply mathematical ideas to the world around them, but for that to happen, the math in a book should be not only accurate, but should be presented in a context that is believable, not forced; it should be presented in an accessible way; and it should “promote healthy mathematical attitudes and dispositions.”

The Whitins give several examples, including Ann Whitehead Nagda’s Tiger Math: Learning to Graph from a Baby Tiger, which provides both an exciting non-fiction narrative with photographs and statistical data from the true, suspenseful story of a motherless tiger cub being raised at the Denver Zoo. Data (such as weight gain over time) is expressed in a variety of useful graphs. It’s an engaging book that connects math to the real world in a way children find spellbinding — and educators find supportive of the standards they are trying to teach.

2. Potential for Varied Response. Children’s books should not be worksheets. Instead of being didactic, they should encourage children to think mathematically and invite them to “investigate, discuss, and extend… (and to) engage in research, problem posing and problem solving.” Readers are not directed. They are invited.

Readers of the charming Grandpa’s Quilt by Betsy Franco, are easily tempted to find their own solutions the problem that faces the book’s characters. The 6-square by 6-square quilt does not cover their grandfather’s feet so they must rearrange its dimensions. Children are likely to explore factors of 36 and to get a feel for the relationship between perimeter and area. And the mathematical “invitations” go on from there.

3. An aesthetic dimension “Good books appeal to the emotions and senses of the reader, provide a fresh perspective, and free the imagination.” Here the Whitins look at how well the written language is crafted, along with the quality of the visuals and whether the book actually inspires a greater appreciation of the wonders of the world (including the human world). To earn our respect, the words and visuals of a work of mathematical literature must be just as compelling as those of any other literary genre. Claiming "It's just a math book!" doesn't cut it.

In their unique counting book, Spots: Counting Creatures from Sky to Sea, author Carolyn Lesser and illustrator Laura Regan use vivid, evocative language and stunning paintings to inspire awe and appreciation of nature — as well as the mathematics that is so often useful in describing and explaining the natural world.

4. Racial, cultural and gender inclusiveness. My first reaction to this criterion was a bit dismissive. “Doesn’t that apply to all books?” I asked. Of course it does, but we should be especially careful not to let the
mathematical component of literature that perpetuates stereotypes blind us to an unfortunate sub-text. There is a huge push now to attract women and members of ethnic minorities to careers in mathematics, science and engineering, and children’s books can help promot
e equity. There is more to it than counting boys vs. girls or white children vs. black or brown children in the illustrations. As one of several fascinating examples, the Whitins sing the praises of The History of Counting by eminent archaeologist Denise Schmandt-Besserat, a non-fiction picture book that celebrates the contributions
of many cultures over many centuries in developing diverse number systems.

New Visions for Linking Literature and Mathematics goes on to provide myriad examples of books for a wide range of ages, strategies for using them to teach math, and an outstanding annotated bibliography called “Best Books for Exploring.”

Now about that exemplary book the Whitins chose to feature in the opening chapter. I held off identifying it until now for fear of seeming self-serving, but in the interest of full-disclosure, I should say that it’s my book If You Hopped Like a Frog. I’ve written about it in earlier posts so I won’t summarize it now and it would really feel way too “me”-focused to list the ways the authors of New Visions found that it met their four criteria. Instead, I’ll close with a passage from an article published in Horn Book in 1987, quoted by the Whitins. I can think of no better summary of their feelings and mine:

“You can almost divide the nonfiction [that children] read into two categories: nonfiction that stuffs in facts, as if children were vases to be filled, and nonfiction that ignites the imagination, as if children were indeed fires to be lit.” (Jo Carr, “Filling Vases, Lighting Fires” Horn Book 63, November/December 1987.)


teacherninja said...

Wow, thanks. Great post. Can't wait to check this stuff out.

Gretchen Woelfle said...

Great information, David. I'd like to traverse a bit of a tangent to recommend a new math-related game for little kids -- Long Neckers Matching and Stacking Game. It's creative and fun -- read the reviews on Amazon. [Full disclosure: a friend of mine invented it.]