Things that give me hope

I am excited to see more and more people working hard to connect students’ informal mathematical thinking to the more formal work of schooling.

The emphasis in the school-home relationship used to be on helping kids do homework (as parodied in these five seconds of the newest Incredibles trailer).

No more! These days there are plenty of projects that seek to stimulate children’s math minds in ways that parallel what we do with literacy.

I’m thinking of the beautiful work of The Museum of Mathematics in New York City, and of Dan Finkel’s Prime Climb and Tiny Polka Dots games. I’m thinking of Malke Rosenfeld’s work, and of Bedtime Math and their associated research at the University of Chicago. and I’m thinking of Table Talk Math.

I’m thinking also of Eugenia Cheng, whose How to Bake Pi does for adults what I want parents to do for kids—show how their natural ways of thinking about their everyday worlds are deeply mathematical.

Some of the momentum for these projects can be traced back to the Cognitively Guided Instruction (CGI) research at University of Wisconsin, which demonstrated that when teachers know the informal ideas about numbers and operations that kids bring to school, those teachers are more effective at helping students learn the formal mathematics of school. The copyright on the first CGI book—titled Children’s Mathematics—is 1999, and it documents research that had been going on for some time before that.

Many of us doing this work now are deeply influenced by this work. Progress on this sort of thing is slow. Time spans are measured in decades, not months or years. But it’s a vibrant space that’s growing. I am optimistic.

Now for the point of today’s post. I want to recommend a delightful new book, Funville Adventures by A.O. Fradkin and A.B. Bishop, and published by Natural Math.

Funville Adventures involves a series of characters in a fanstatical land. Each has a magical power; these powers interact. You think you’re just following some fun and silly adventures on the playground; really, you’re thinking about one of the most important ideas of higher mathematics—functions.

Yet true to the nature of most of the projects I discussed above (and to the nature of this blog), it doesn’t matter whether you know about the relationship between the story and the mathematics. If you do, that’s great. If you don’t but are curious, there’s an addendum for that, and if you just want to stay at the level of the story, you’ll exercise your math mind thinking about the relationship between growing and shrinking, the relationship between doubling and halving, and why flipping upside down has no sibling.

Funville Adventures should be in every Talking Math with Your Kids-friendly library. I supported it as a Kickstarter; I’m a big fan of A.O. Fradkin’s blog. The book is on sale right now. More info and reviews here.

Time Zones

Griffin is 13 years old and seems to be coming to the end of that early adolescent phase of rejecting everything those around him hold dear. Engaging him in math talk has taken more finesse in this phase of life.

Mostly it has involved giving him responsibility for things that involve making calculations. When he was little, we could talk collaboratively about how many tangerines are in a 3 pound bag and discuss whether this would be enough to last the family a week. Now I tend to put him in charge of getting enough tangerines to last us a week. He still has to do the same thinking, but he’s in charge.

This is not enough tangerines for a week at our house. (By the way, which is more?)

From time to time, though, we still put a mathematical idea up for discussion, and as he ages through adolescence, these conversations happen a bit more often. Yet he is still wary. Nevertheless, I persist.

We have been watching the Olympics, and we have wondered about which events are happening as we watch them, and which ones happened earlier (yet somehow happened “tomorrow”!)

Griffin was thinking about time zones, and about their implications for traveling as we wrapped up an evening this week, and made preparations for the next day.

Griffin (13 years old): So they’re 14 hours ahead of us?

Me: Yes.

G: You’d get a lot of jet lag, huh?

Me: Yeah. Maybe not as much as it looks like, though. Maybe it’s just 10 hours’ worth, going the other way.

There is a bit of a puzzled silence.

G: Wait. Really?

Me: Yeah. Well, plus a day.

G: Wait. Is this one of your mathy talks?

Me: Absolutely not.

If you’re reading this, Griff, I’m sorry (sort of). I am totally busted.

Me: Yeah. 14 hours ahead is the same as 10 hours behind, right? Just going the other way.

G: But the day would be wrong.

Me: Yeah. You have to add a day, but you don’t get jet lag because the day changes, you get jet lag because the time of day does.

G: Maybe.

He returns to packing his lunch. I go back to whatever I was doing. Putting turtles in boxes, probably.

A couple minutes later…

G: So the east coast is 23 hours behind us?

So What Do We Learn?

Keep trying. Opportunities to talk about numbers, shapes, and patterns present themselves. Seize them and do not stop. Ask questions, think out loud. Don’t worry about whether any particular conversation goes anywhere. Just keep at it.

Which Poster Doesn’t Belong?

(Cross-posted from Overthinking My Teaching)

Two and a half years ago, I was developing Which One Doesn’t Belong? (before Stenhouse had signed on to publish it). I went on a tour of elementary classrooms to talk with K—5 students all around the Twin Cities about these collections of shapes. I learned a tremendous amount of course, and much of that learning went into the Teacher Guide (which Stenhouse convinced me needed to exist).

I learned a lot, and I also noticed something.

Most of those classrooms had some form of shapes posters on the walls. Triangles, rectangles, squares, and rhombi were proudly and prominently displayed so that students would be surrounded by correct geometry vocabulary. Most of those shapes posters had something important (and unfortunate) in common with the shapes books in the school library and in the children’s homes.

There were rarely squares on the rectangle poster. All of the triangles were oriented with one side parallel to the ground, and most of them were equilateral. Sometimes the shapes had smiley faces. You and I know that a triangle is still a triangle, no matter its orientation. I can assure you not all elementary school children know this. While the vocabulary is good on your standard shapes poster, the math is not. (I decided not to link to examples—you can do your own search and report back if you find my claims exaggerated.)

This summer, Stenhouse is helping all of us to fix this. You can now preorder Which One Doesn’t Belong? shapes posters.

Poster images

They come as a set of eight, with an insert in the spirit of the Which One Doesn’t Belong? Teacher Guide to help you facilitate student thinking and classroom conversation as they hang in your classroom.

1. Which SQUARE doesn’t belong?

2. Which RECTANGLE doesn’t belong?

3. Which RHOMBUS doesn’t belong?

4. Which HEXAGON doesn’t belong?

5. Which TRIANGLE doesn’t belong?

6. Which POLYGON doesn’t belong?

7. Which SHAPE doesn’t belong?

8. Which CURVE doesn’t belong?

These posters are filled with good mathematics. Consider the triangle poster on top of the pile. The triangle in the lower right is the only right triangle. The one in the upper right is the only equilateral triangle. The one in the upper left is the only isosceles triangle (or is it? do equilateral triangles count as isosceles?) The one in the lower left is the only one you can’t build out of the triangle in the lower right. Students will notice side lengths, angle measures, orientation, composition and decomposition, and more properties of triangles. Some will complain that not all of them are triangles (“too pointy” or “doesn’t have a bottom”). These posters let you and your students sit with—and play with—these ideas over a period of weeks or months.

So as you plan your back-to-school classroom organizing and decoration, I hope you’ll consider making space on your walls for these posters. And I definitely hope you’ll share your students’ ideas here and on Twitter.

Available for pre-order now. They’ll ship in early August.

Young children are more logical than you think they are

The kids (Griffin—12 years old—and Tabitha—10 years old) and I went on our annual summer camping trip recently.

This year it was Glacial Lakes State Park in western Minnesota.

While there, we visited the swimming beach where a family that included a 3-year-old girl was also enjoying the beautiful warm day.

There were minnows swimming in the shallow water, which the 3-year-old badly wanted to capture with her net. When she stood still, the fish would approach cautiously, but every time she moved, the fish quickly bolted.

Girl (three years old): I want to catch them, Mommy! Why do they swim away?

Mom: Maybe they’re scared.

[Thoughtful pause]

Girl: But I am not a monster! I am not a monster, Mommy.

Over the next several minutes, she repeated her monster claims a number of times. Eventually—as will happen with 3-year-olds—her attention shifted to other things and the swimming and splashing continued.

So What Do We Learn?

Young children can think logically. This runs counter to some assumptions we make about three-year-olds, but it is true.

Here is the logical truth this girl understood:

The only thing to fear is monsters.

Fish fear me.

Therefore, I am a monster.

And deeper yet, she understood what logicians call the contrapositive.

The only thing to fear is monsters.

I am not a monster.

Therefore, the fish do not fear me (and so I can catch them).

This child was not expressing horror at being considered a monster. Rather she was a little frustrated that the fish were not behaving according to the logic she knew to be true. Or perhaps she was a little frustrated with the inadequate (and illogical) explanation her mother had provided.

In any case, her logic was perfect.

We don’t really expect this of three-year-olds but we should. Just as we don’t really expect rich place value ideas in kindergartners, but we should. If we keep our ears and eyes open, we’ll see it and hear it and be able to support its growth.

A delightful new book on Kickstarter

There are a bunch of people doing really good and interesting work with math and kids these days. Sasha Fradkin is one of these. She has a gift for tapping deep into kids’ mathematical minds and for writing about the beautiful ideas she finds there.

She has written a book—Funville Adventures—that is definitely worth your time and money, and she’s funding its publication on Kickstarter. I have pledged. You should too. I promise you’ll be glad you did.

National Math Festival

I’m taking Math On-A-Stick and Which One Doesn’t Belong? on the road—to the National Math Festival in Washington, DC on Saturday, April 22, 2017. If you’re nearby, you should come out and say Hi!

I have two Math On-A-Stick sessions—at 10:00 and 4:30—and one Which One Doesn’t Belong? session at 2:30. The Math On-A-Stick sessions are pure play; the Which One Doesn’t Belong? one is interactive but more talky.

There are lots of other amazing folks doing amazing things with all ages, so come spend the day! It’s free. See you there.

The Summer of Math is back!

We had so much fun the first time around, the Summer of Math is back for a second year, and it has its own webpage!

The basics are the same as last year:

You can head over to The Summer of Math webpage, pay for a subscription, and all summer long (June—August) we’ll ship you awesome, fun stuff that will keep you and your 5—10 year old(s) busy playing and talking math.

You’ll color, count, make patterns, designs and shapes. You’ll read together, draw, and challenge yourselves. You’ll notice. You’ll wonder. You’ll play. And when school starts back up in the fall,

your kids will remember this as the best, mathiest summer ever.

A few small changes include: a new website, three boxes instead of four (but same amount of total mathy goodness, so the net result is higher math-fun density in each box), and a few new things rotated into the lineup (the Truchet tiles are curvy this year!)

Together with a little help from some super smart friends, we’re shooting for a bigger Summer of Math this year, but there is an upper limit on subscriptions. Help us reach it—and as many families as possible—by signing up and by spreading the word.