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Lift the Math Curse

Lift the Math Curse

By Cathlene Albrecht, Teaching PreK-8

  • An interdisciplinary project helps students discover the wonder of numbers in daily life

“When am I ever going to use this?” This question is heard or thought in every middle-level math class across the land. Teachers struggle to apply math lessons to everyday life and make math meaningful and useful for their students. I, too, struggled with this problem, until I read the book Math Curse by Jon Scieszka (Viking Books, 1995). I happened upon this book at the school book sale. What an intriguing title, I thought. I picked it up and read it through before purchasing it. I can say it was the wisest purchase I made in years. I took it back to my classroom and shared it with my students. They loved the title also, as many of them feel they have been cursed with math.

The math that surrounds us.

Math Curse is about a girl who wakes up one day and everything she looks at or does becomes a math problem in her mind. The story begins, “I wake at 7.15. It takes me 10 minutes to get dressed, 15 minutes to eat my breakfast, and one minute to brush my teeth. Suddenly, it’s a problem: 1) If my bus leaves at 8.00, will I make it on time? 2) How many minutes in one hour? 3) How many teeth in one mouth?” The girl sees mathematical problems on the bus, in her schedule and even in her closet. She surmises that her teacher must have put a “math curse” on her.

Frequently, my students challenge me: Is everything related to math? I thought about how I could get my students to see the math around them. Then the idea came to have the students write their own math curse – or blessing – story. The parameters for the project were as follows.

1. Write a story about a day in your life or the life of a character you’ve created. The day is one 24-hour period that is changed by some outside event. This event might be magical, like picking up a glowing protractor, or physical, like being knocked in the head by an old math book.

2. The story must be illustrated.

3. It may either be handwritten or completed on the computer.

4. The day should include 15 problems.

5. An answer key must follow the story.

This activity can be used with fourth through eighth grades, adjusting the list of skills for each level. Since I teach sixth grade, I included topics such as operations with decimals and fractions. Per- cents, ratios and proportions were another focus, along with measurement and geometry. The students had to include two graphs and also incorporate perimeter, circumference and area.

Sequence of classes.

I devoted two class periods to beginning this project. In the first, we reread Math Curse, then I introduced the project and encouraged brainstorming. The second class period was midway through the month and was used to check for progress. While I talked with each student individually, the rest of the class members were reading partners’ work and peer-evaluating. The remainder of the work on the project was completed at home, and parents were notified of due dates well in advance.

Student project + parent participation = success.

Parental response to this project was overwhelming. They loved the idea. For most students it became a collaborative project with their parents, for which they used the Internet together to find sample problems. The key was fitting the problems into a 24-hour period. Students who did not have help at home were encouraged to stay after school to get guidance from me.

The project x 2.

This project was also an interdisciplinary activity. My teammate, who teaches Language Arts, was gracious enough to count it as a Language Arts grade. She checked rough drafts in a peer revision situation using a language arts rubric that included character development and beginning, middle and end.

Greater than (>) the sum of its parts.

Right before introducing the project, I mentioned it to a student of mine, Abby. She had struggled to keep a “C” grade all year. When I gave out other homework, Abby would grimace and complain, most times under her breath. She struggled daily and fought back tears sometimes, as math was frustrating to her. When I explained this project, however, I was surprised to see the expression on Abby’s face. She was math phobic, but was a writer and artist who excelled in Language Arts. This was the first time that Abby had ever shown any interest or effort in math. She asked me to stay after school with her to check her problems and was the first to share her project on evaluation day. Her finished project was a work of art – and mathematically correct.

Abby was not the only student intrigued by this project. Carlos also worked very hard to complete it. He was the type of student who would doodle constantly. I thought for a while that he was taking notes, but upon closer inspection I found a series of cartoon drawings. He hardly ever did his homework. He saw this project, however, as a chance to draw his character in a story – a mathematical story at that.

Most of the students were very proud of their projects. I saw that this assignment could open the door for reluctant math participants.

Extra credit.

Asking students to answer their own question – “when are we ever going to use this?” – invites them to think about how math is applied to real life. With testing becoming a major focus across the land, there are few opportunities for open-ended responses, but adding creativity to math lessons can allow students to unlock fears and to put the joy back in learning.

Courtesy of © 2007, YellowBrix, Inc.

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