Lesson Tutor: Mathematics: Read any Good Math, Lately?

by Holly Furgason

I have always hated  math.  It actually goes beyond just hating math.  My mother taught me that members of our family were incapable of math.  I know it sounds cruel but it was her firm believe that for some unknown genetic reason math was beyond understanding by members of our family- especially females.

I was able to make my way through elementary school fairly well.  Addition and subtraction were easy enough.  Multiplication and division were a bit harder but I understood the concepts and could  figure problems out.  I don’t even remember math in junior high school.  Perhaps I’m in denial about the horror of those math years and have pushed them to a back corner of my mind.

By the time I got to high school and signed up for Algebra, the only math required for a New York state regents diploma, I was surely lost.  I failed Algebra that year and had to attend summer school where everyone passed as long as they showed up.  I learned just as little about Algebra as I did when I took it the first time!   I realized I was a word person (word problems, of course, escaped me) and I concentrated on word based subjects such as history, English, and five different foreign languages.

I stayed in denial about math  for a long time afterward.  I had to  take Algebra for the third time in college and passed with a C but I still didn’t understand any of it.

When I decided to homeschool I never thought past the basic four- addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.  I realized when I worked with preschoolers that these concepts are discovered naturally and children generally understand them before school age.  And so it was with my children.

Eventually they asked me how to add more than one digit, what happens when a column adds up to more than 9 or what to do when you have to take 8 away from 6.  Of course, this was in the range of the basic four.  It would take just a few minutes to show them how to work out various problems on paper and then they’d be on their merry way using their new found knowledge in many ways.

As the kids grew older I started to worry a little.  Sure, we were doing all those unschoolish math things like doubling recipes, plotting gardens and playing Yahtzee but when my oldest announced that he wanted to be an engineer and an astronaut, I panicked!  Surely he would need to know advanced math that would require formal studies.  I purchased several types of math workbooks from the book store, waiting for him to decide it was time to buckle down.  It never happened.  Not to worry, I assured myself, when he needs it he’ll learn it.

Throughout our homeschooling journey, I have always found new and exciting ways of learning the traditional subjects taught in school.  I even started a successful business based on a more effective way of learning a foreign language.  I was surprised at feeling the need to rely on textbooks and workbooks but it never entered my mind that was any other way to learn to math!

One day I ran over to the library right before it closed and, unable to find the book I wanted, I looked at the shelf hoping to find something interesting enough to tide me over.  Right there in front of my eyes was a book entitled Math Power: How to Help Your Child to Love Math Even if You Don’t by Dr. Pat Kenschaft.  Marvelous concept, I thought and I snatched it up. (Out of print and limited availability at Amazon.)

I was very impressed with Dr. Kenschaft’s book though it only dealt with the preschool and early elementary years.  She even quoted John Holt and had homeschooled her daughter for a time.  Surely she would have some words of wisdom for older kids.   So I did what any desperate person would do- I called her!

We spoke for about an hour and she had many things to share with me.  She assured me that my children weren’t ruined and that at least they wouldn’t have to deal with the damage of rote learning.   I came to realize that my mother was just a product of rote and computation.  One phrase of Dr. Kenschaft’s, however, stuck out in my mind- “READ MATH”.

Read math?  Ah, words!  I can do words!  But all the math books I’ve seen were full of numbers and problems and equations and horrible explanations involving numbers and problems and equations.  Where in the world would I find math I could read?  There is, Dr. Kenschaft gently informed me, a large mathematics section in any decent library.  Who would have thought!

I quickly slipped into denial mode again and didn’t think another thing about what she had said.   My son was now talking about being a professional clown.   A noble and traditional vocation I assured my husband.  No need to learn advanced math I told myself.

     On another trip to the library, perusing the “New Books” shelf while waiting for my children, I noticed a book with the interesting title, MyBrain is Open.   Well, at least that’s what the big words said.  When I picked it up I saw that the title continued The Mathematical Journeys of Paul Erdos.  Math!  The old familiar fear gripped me!  I quickly put it down and moved on.  Three times I went back and picked up that book, each time reading the cover a little further and each time coming up with more excuses to leave it where it was.  I finally took a deep breath and, without letting my brain know what I was doing, I picked it up and ran to the check out line.

     I read the book in two days!  For the first time mathematics appeared interesting to me.  After reading it a second time to my children,  I went back to the library and started looking for children’s books on mathematics.  The selection was incredible!

These children’s books filled in many blanks in my own math education and presented concepts that had been incomprehensible to me in a way that made sense.   We read about math history, numbers, pi, sets, mathematicians, Fermat’s Last Theorem, logic, topology, proofs and more.  And we’re still reading!

I pick up some of those workbooks to play with from time to time and excitedly share my discoveries and abilities with my children.  Of course, as life long unschoolers they don’t see what the big deal is.  To them everything including math is there just waiting to be learned when you’re ready or interested.

Will this be enough?  Not if your child’s going to be an engineer and an astronaut but it is the beginning of a darn good mathematics education; one in which the children understand advance concepts, appreciate the beauty of the subject, and find it just as interesting as anything else there is to discover!  John Allen Paulos in his book Beyond Numeracy; Ruminations of A Numbers Man says that teaching math by rote and computation is like teaching literature by spelling and punctuation.

So, have you read any good math lately?

Side bar:
Here is a sampling of some of the math reading books and a few other resources that my family has enjoyed.  Although many of them present the same concepts, they do so in different ways and different contexts so that the concepts become much clearer as time goes on.

Beginning books:

Math Curse by Jon Scieszka
A really fun book that our family read several times!   Mrs. Fabonnaci (if you don’t know the significance of that name then you really do need to read some math!)  turns a child’s world upside down when she tells him that everything can be seen as a math problem.  Very funny!

G is for Googol: A Math Alphabet Book by David M. Schwartz
Clear and delightful descriptions of advanced math concepts.  It contains the easiest diagram to help children understand the Koenigsberg bridge problem and network theory.

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
A charming fictional story about a child’s trip to Digitopolis and Dictionopolis looking for Ryme and Reason.  Suitable for all ages including adults.  Look for other fiction written by mathematicians.

Intermediate books:

Mathematics by Irving Adler
This book has several concepts such as perfect, amicable and sociable numbers that are not in many of the other books.  The most interesting part of this book is the short computer programs in BASIC it contains for finding various sequences of numbers.

Realm of Numbers by Isaac Asimov
Realm of Algebra by Isaac Asimov
Both of these books are classics- clear, easy to understand and friendly!(Editor’s note: Out of print. June, 2005)

Advanced books:

Mathematics by Irene Fekete and Jasmine Denyer
Mathematics with a science twist!

My Brain is Open: The Mathematical Journeys of Paul Erdos by Bruce Schechter
This fascinating biography of the late, great mathematician, Paul Erdos not only helps in the understanding of various math concepts but also gives us a rare peek into the mathematician’s world.

Beyond Numeracy; Ruminations of A Numbers Man by John Allen Paulos
A great book that belongs in the home library!   A collection of math essays that are entertaining and enlightening.  Each short essay can be read on its own in a matter of minutes.  Check out his other books too.

The Proof- NOVA Video
This is about Andrew Wiles, the man who finally proved Fermat’s Last Theorem.

The Man Who Loved Numbers– NOVA Video
The story of a self taught mathematician who ended up at Oxford working with the world’s top mathematicians.  Talk about unschooling!

Engines of Our Ingenuity– PBS Radio Program
Although not specifically a math program, it does often cover math subjects in an interesting way.

Donald in Mathemagicland– Disney Video
I know I saw this one in school but I didn’t remember much about it.  It covers billiards as a game of angles, the golden ratio and music as mathematics.  Lots of fun!

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