Anna M. Lewis’s post earlier this week on special childhood books got me thinking about a book that I was obsessed with when I was in fifth or sixth grade. Try as I might, I can’t recall the title or the author, but I do remember the subject: probability. I was fascinated by the fact that you could use numbers to predict the likelihood of an event taking place, and excited that the actual formulas for permutations and combinations were well within my grasp. I devoured that book, reading chapters over and over and rolling dice and flipping coins to test my predictions.
It may seem surprising that the most influential book in the development of an author who focuses on history—and sports history at that—was about math. But mathematics and I have had a long and intimate history, and I still have a great affection for the subject and the people who teach it. It doesn’t hurt that I am the daughter of a CPA who tends to calculate rates and averages and quote them in everyday conversation. Just last week, my dad suggested that we sit in the upstairs balcony during my visit home, because he figured out that his annual property tax payment averages $8 per room per day and he didn’t feel the balcony was earning its keep.
Along with history, math was one of my favorite subjects in school. I loved that my progress could be evaluated by the number of right answers I got, and that those answers were definitively right or wrong. (This was before teachers gave credit for the problem solving process, rewarding creative thinking as well as the final answer.) I even took an extra math class in high school—not surprisingly, on statistics and probability—and then took calculus in twelfth grade. My math teacher, Mrs. Sichel, was smart and engaging and obviously loved the material. Her feelings were contagious.
Yet I never took another math class. When I got to college, I found that my A in high school calculus satisfied the freshman math requirement, so I loaded my schedule with history classes and never looked back….until I was out of school for several years. It was after my first stint at Scholastic, where I had worked on a high school American history textbook and a sixth-grade news magazine. Since I'd left, the company had started Scholastic MATH, a magazine for kids in grades seven through nine, and the same team was about to launch Scholastic DynaMath, for kids in grades five and six. After I wrote a few freelance articles for MATH, I was offered the job as DynaMath’s first full-time editor. How could I say no?
I served as editor of one or the other of the math magazines for six years, then returned a few years later to supervise them and their offspring, Math Power, aimed at third- and fourth-graders, for three more years. While we didn’t teach math, we gave kids the opportunity to use numbers, arithmetic operations, and problem solving in puzzles and real-life applications. I came to see math as a language that could help explain the world and the people in it. We profiled a mural artist, a building demolition crew, and a hot-air balloonist, and examined the math they needed to do their jobs. We investigated the nutritional value of “lite” foods, the phenomenon of cheating in school, and the reasons lines are longer at women's restrooms than at men's, all with the aid of math.
Thanks in part to their two dedicated and talented editors, MATH and DynaMath are still going strong, at least as strong as print publications can go these days. And while I embraced my history jones more fully and all but left math behind, I still see the teachable moments in numbers. One of my favorite archival items in my upcoming book, Wheels of Change (due out January 11), is a news clip from the September 24, 1892, edition of the New York Times titled, “World’s Records for One Mile by Various Methods of Progression.” This clip lists the record for traveling one mile 18 different ways, including by railway train, ice skating, cycling, and running. There’s so much kids can do with a list like this. They can compare the records to each other or even find present-day records and compare them to those from 1892, then explore why the times have gotten faster. My mind is reeling with thoughts of possible math activities. If you’re interested, check my Web site in a month or two. I think I’ll shake out the math cobwebs and write some.