Literature in the Mathematics Classroom
By Kay Toliver

Teaching mathematics effectively is not necessarily an easy thing to do. It takes a lot of understanding, a lot of preparation, a lot of work in the classroom, and a lot of work after class. But there is something that we can do to make the job easier: we can motivate our students to want to learn the things we want to teach them.

There are many ways to do this. One method that is almost sure-fire is bringing literature into the mathematics classroom. What child (or adult, for that matter) doesn’t like to hear a good story?

Story-telling is a tradition in almost every culture, and a wonderful way to teach. I’ll never forget the stories my father told me about growing up in Georgia, about my uncles June, July, August and September. (I remember telling him I didn’t have any uncles with those names, but he explained to me that they were my “great” uncles.) I loved to listen to stories, and when I started teaching I found that I equally loved to tell them.

The literature we bring into the math classroom can include the many excellent stories that have mathematical themes. But any good story can provide a context for a mathematical problem.

One of my favorite examples of this is a lesson based on a story called “Bartholemew and the Oobleck,” by Dr. Seuss.

In this story, the King grows tired of seeing the same things come from the sky day after day, and he orders his wizards to invent a new substance to fall from the heavens: oobleck. But oobleck is not quite the wonderful thing he thought it would be.

The essence of the mathematics lesson is to have the students examine some “oobleck,” describe it, and then do a statistical analysis of the descriptive words that they come up with.

Something almost magical occurs in this statistics lesson when it is oriented around the mysterious “oobleck.” I see students becoming creative thinkers, language skills improving, science concepts coming to life. And, believe it or not, students become fascinated with the process of organizing data into a chart, finding relative frequencies and drawing conclusions.

I suppose that this synergy between mathematics and literature shouldn’t be too surprising: literature and mathematics have many common themes. Both deal with patterns, and with relationships. In mathematics we have problems. And in literature when you are reading about characters and their conflicts, there are problems to be solved. There is a natural link between the two subjects.

But what is most wonderful to me about using literature in mathematics class is that it takes math completely out of the realm of being a finite, boring study of numbers and nomenclature, and into the realm of open-ended creativity and aesthetic appeal. Or, to put it another way, it makes it fun.

I believe-and my experience has shown me-that if students have fun learning math they are much more likely to succeed with it and to persist with it.

And, besides, I like to have fun, too.

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