An Organic Path to Mathematics: A Reaction to Donalyn Miller's The Book Whisperer

Donalyn Miller has great suggestions for the English and language arts classrooms of our nations. Science and social studies teachers may find themselves readily able to adapt her methods to their rooms. Even though mathematics is the farthest removed subject from English/ language arts, many of these strategies can still prove valuable, such as being the cheer leader for your subject area, creating a classroom library, and giving students opportunities to organically discover mathematics.

Genuine enthusiasm can be infectious. Did you know that people have DIED for math? Promising to finish out the day with a story about someone who gave their life for their mathematical beliefs- such as Archimedes or Hippasus- is sure to intrigue your students. Follow it up the next day with a retelling of how Sophie Germain had to hide her studies from her parents and even cross dressed in order to attend lectures by great mathematicians. Show off your ability to multiply large numbers in your head, and then promptly explain the trick. Calculus is a great subject for this in particular: have students make up a messy polynomial and then painstakingly take the derivative using the formal definition of the derivative, while you write and cover the answer in seconds. When they learn the power rule in a few days, return to the problem. They can do it in seconds now too!

Books are not just for people who like English. There are many great math books out there- besides text books! Fill your classroom with classic mathematical fiction such as Flatland and its companion novels Flatterland and Sphereland. Encourage less enthusiastic readers to check out The Logicomix, a graphic novel based on the life of Bertrand Russell. Choose books with characters that feel strongly about math such as the protagonists in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, which depicts a boy who loves math, and A Mango Shaped Space, which shows a girl who struggles with it. Many books also highlight the necessity to use mathematical calculations for both real and imagined tasks, such as the Young Wizards series- where wizards can teleport to the moon… only if they correctly calculate the proper amount of air to bring with them. Add to that a wealth of non-fiction on mathematicians and applications of mathematics and your bookshelf will be overrun. But if you have more space, throw in any books you feel like just to prove that an avid reader can love mathematics and a student who loves mathematics can be an avid reader.

Mathematics follows a very predictable path, where each topic learned relies on the one before it. This does not allow for much student choice when learning. However, mathematics fundamentally relies on logic and logic and be explored in many puzzles and games where students can progress at their own rate. In particular you should check out The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis, a computer game where to save small blue people called Zoombinis you must navigate past many obstacles and traps, never noticing the amount of logic it takes to get there. Another game that is sweeping high schools is 2048. Without forcing your students to reinvent the wheel, allow students to attempt to derive theorems and formulas from what they already know. Even if they do not rediscover the formula, the process of trying has taught them a valuable lesson on how to think.

Donalyn Miller has applied an overarching educational theory to her language arts class with success. Even teachers in different subject areas can learn from her example, by looking at the basis for her decisions. If teachers share their love of their subject, relate it to a wide variety of reading, and give students a chance to explore the subject in their own way, they will be as successful as Miller.


Jem C.

Math/ Science Teacher

1250+ hours
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