Monday, January 26, 2009

The Popcorn Factor

I know how to get kids really excited about math. Show them popcorn. Lots of popcorn. It’s one of my math props when I speak at schools. I pull out bags of popcorn that grow by powers of ten from one to ten to one hundred to one thousand and so on. Are you wondering how big the bags get? That’s exactly what the kids are wondering, and they’re at the edge of their figurative seats waiting to find out (I say “figurative” because they’re usually sitting on the floor). Their growing excitement is abated only momentarily when I tell them they won’t get to eat my popcorn (and wouldn't want to eat it because I popped it in 1985). They groan but immediately go back to screaming with delight as a bag of popcorn ten times larger than the last one appears before their eyes. 

For years I’ve been using popcorn to demonstrate various math concepts as I act out the plot, if you can call it that, of On Beyond a Million, my powers-of-ten counting book. The popcorn almost never fails to excite children from grades K to 5 or 6, whether they are urban or rural, rich or poor, white or black, X or Y.  On several occasions I dropped the popcorn from my presentation, but I had to put it back because it’s so popular. 

The fact that 21st century children go wild over popcorn as a math prop encourages me wildly. Why? Because popcorn is so simple. It isn’t a coveted, rare treat that they hardly ever get to see (or taste). They haven’t been barraged by commercials touting its pleasures. There’s nothing high-tech about my bags of popcorn, and no special effects. There isn’t even an on/off switch. Yet kids love it because of the way the bags’ growth in size appeals to their senses and their emotions.

Much has been written recently about the current plugged-in generation that can’t have fun without electric outlets at hand and electronic devices in hand. Richard Louv’s best-selling book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, sounds an alarm that children who are alienated from nature suffer in many psychological and physiological ways. Elementary school curricula may teach students all about the Amazon rain forest’s endangered species but do not encourage them to interact with the natural world outside their classroom, says Louv. That interaction, when it does occur, has a wealth of salubrious effects.

I am encouraged by the popcorn. If kids can get so excited about something as simple as my popcorn, then there is hope. For instance, if adults simply expose children to “nature play,” they will drink in the benefits.

Something else without an on-off switch comes to mind: books. In recent years, pundits have predicted death knells for the paper-and-ink variety of reading material but I don’t see it coming. Like big bags of popcorn, books are too much fun to hold and behold. They’re going to stick around for a while. Furthermore, as an author, I find the popcorn factor instructive. It says I can stick with the basics. By basics, I don’t mean what that word has come to mean in the politicized world of education and testing. I mean the basic and universal emotions and responses in children (shared by adults who haven't lost the basics). One of the most valuable pieces of advice I ever got from an editor was in reference to a fiction manuscripts, Super Grandpa, but I think it applies to non-fiction as well. This editor told me to “cut to the emotional core of the story.” The emotional core of powers of ten is that every time you add a zero to a number, it gets ten times bigger and that’s WAAAAAAAAAY bigger. “WAAAAAAAAAY bigger” is the emotional core. It’s exciting. If I can get to that in my readers  (or audience members),  I've reached them. Just pop up some corn and you’ll see what I mean.


BookChook said...

I totally understand the kids' excitement. Truly, I would love to see the demonstration myself. So often in my everyday life I try to guesstimate - how many palm trees high is that building? Which of these two pencils hefts heavier? etc. I think kids are not jaded, are still in touch with that part of themselves that wants to work out the world and all its kernels.

Unknown said...

I'm with David on getting kids away from electronics. When I do my presentations kids go crazy for the "Flying Teabag", levitating ping-pong balls, eggs and balloons, and stabbing a plastic bag full of colored water that proves to be leakproof. Interacting with the real world beats a virtual life.

teacherninja said...

You, sir, are awesome. Thanks!

Jessica said...

What an awesome idea! I think showing students that things other than video games and electronic gadgets can be fun and exciting is a great way to open their eyes to the world around them. This definitely pertains to children's literature as well. When students are excited about books, just as they are excited about your popcorn demonstration, anything is possible! What a great idea!