Math Shouldn’t Be A Book-Free Zone
Several wonderful books involving math topics, like The Math Curse by Jon Scieszka and Counting on Frank by Rod Clement, easily make it onto the classroom bookshelf in elementary school. However, such titles suddenly disappear in middle school when reading quickly becomes compartmentalized to English class. While science fiction manages to work its way into reading lists, books involving math tend to get overlooked. However, math literature can be used in a variety of ways both in math and English. Picture books and short stories can be used to introduce math concepts or model creative writing about mathematical topics. Recommended novels and biographies also engage students in reading about characters, fictional and real, using math. This integration encourages literacy, general and math literacy, in both language arts as well as math class.
Read-alouds are great not only for writer’s workshop but also for math class. Some books are great for contextualizing math concepts like division, large numbers and infinity: A Remainder of One by Elinor Pinczes, How Much is a Million? by David Schwartz, and The Cat in Numberland by Iver Ekeland. Middle schoolers will still enjoy books that introduce grade-level content such as polygons and the Pythagorean Theorem: The Greedy Triangle by Marilyn Burns and What’s Your Angle, Pythagoras? by Julie Ellis.
Even high schoolers can be engaged by read-alouds. When I was teaching an Algebra 2 class, we were covering a unit focused on quadratic equations written in vertex form and the various transformations: is it facing up or down, narrow or wide, moved up or down, left or right. I created a quadratic equation to go along with a short picture book, Hedgehug by Benn Sutton. After listening to the story, the students discussed how it dramatized the transformations of the equation I had presented at the beginning. I then had students write an equation in vertex form and create a brief illustrated story to describe the transformations of their equation. For example: “Pikachu and Venusaur were battling. After 3 upward electric attacks, Venusaur was hit so hard he was never right again. Ash’s confidence was pushed down so low that he was never able to get the remaining 7 Gym Badges.”
Math literature serves as models for writing creative stories about math. Cindy Neuschwander has written a series of picture books about a knight named Sir Cumference who happens to find the perfect round table for King Arthur. Sir Cumference later has adventures facing the Dragon of Pi, exploring Angleland, and searching for the Sword in the Cone. Small groups can present the story as well as the mathematical content to the class. Students could even extend the story into adventures with composite shapes, the sum of interior angles of n-sided polygons, or the surface area and volume of solids. There are also many books filled with mathematical puzzles that are great can be used as warm-up puzzles in math classes. Greg Tang and Harry Briggs have several colorful and pun-derfully titled books: Grapes of Math, Math Potatoes, Math Appeal, and Math-terpieces. Theoni Pappas and Penrose the mathematical cat also explores fractals, googols, and infinity.
There are many book suggestions that would complement the content presented in math classes. A Girl Named Digit by Annabel Monaghan would be an excellent book recommendation paired with math lessons regarding code breaking or sequences. Digit, a high school senior just trying to fit in, unlocks an ecoterrorist’s code when she recognizes a reverse Fibonacci sequence broadcasted during a television show. This novel would be an excellent complement to lessons about the Fibonacci sequence or how to break Vignere’s Cipher, a cipher that uses a sequence of shifts to smooth out the more and less frequent letters of a language. Lessons involving frequency tables and code breaking can also include conversations about complicating ciphers by using other languages as did the Navajo code talkers in WWII. Gödel’s Sunflower, a short story by Stephen Baxter, also contains some examples of fractals, as the setting of the story is a giant fractal construction on an alien world. If you can fit in a topic like fractals, this would be a good fictional companion to accompany the construction of such fractals as Koch’s Snowflake, Sierpinski’s Triangle and Menser’s Sponge.
Reading lists should include books with characters engaging with math or other characters in math-fields. For a winter or spring break, students would choose a book from a list of Math-related titles and return with a book talk, essay or poster that not only summarized the plot or character development but also focused on the math content. These 20 books are definitely going on my suggested book list for my students this year.
Fiction titles for young adults:
§ A Girl Named Digit by Annabel Monaghan
§ An Abundance of Katherines by John Green
§ The Midnighters by Scott Westerfeld
§ Geek High by Piper Banks
§ Geek Abroad by Piper Banks
§ A Tangled Tale by Lewis Carroll
§ A Subway Named Moebius by A.J. Deutsch
§ The Number Devil by Hans Magnus Enzensberger
§ The Shadow Guests by Joan Aiken
§ Pythagoras Eagle and the Music of the Spheres by Anne Carse Nolting
§ Chasing Vermeer by Blue Baliett
§ The Wright 3 by Blue Baliett
§ Flatland by Edwin A Abbott
§ The Man Who Counted by Malba Tahan
§ Tracking the Random Variable by Marcos Donnelly
Biographies of mathematicians:
§ Sophie’s Diary by Dora Musiekak
§ Carry on, Mr. Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham
§ Emmy Noether: The Mother of Modern Algebra by M.B.W. Tent
§ Prince of Mathematics: Carl Friedrich Gauss by M.B.W. Tent
§ Leonard Euler and the Bernoullis: Mathematicians from Basel by M.B.W. Tent
For more books with significant mathematical references, Alex Kasman of The College of Charleston, has an extensive index of over 1000 titles: http://kasmana.people.cofc.edu/MATHFICT/.
This article is sponsored by Western Governors University, a non-profit, accredited, online university. WGU's Teachers College offers multiple online degree programs for current teachers or those looking to become teachers. To find out more, please visit www.wgu.edu/wisecareers_teachers
Melanie Carbine has traveled and worked throughout North America, Europe and the Pacific Islands. She currently teaches middle school math and English at Briggs Chaney Middle School in Silver Spring, MD as well as works as an after school math and ESOL tutor in Washington, D.C. When she's not teaching, she's most likely wrapped up in some art project or traveling. Contact her on Twitter or Facebook, visit her website, or subscribe to her travel vlogs.