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Math stories

NOTE: This post has been updated by a new, consolidated post and list of Math Stories which you can find here.

Homeschoolers are constantly sending out information about cool resources they found, great projects that inspired their children, and new curriculum they’re trying. I try to keep up on it all, but a lot of it slides right by. Occasionally I really try out a recommended website or book. But sometimes it’s a slower process.



In the case of story-based math learning, it was a process of being nagged, over and over, by a continuing refrain from the chorus. On every “great math resources” list I’d come across one. Or a friend would mention one. Or I’d see a recommendation on an e-mail forum.

Then one day I typed “Sir Cumference” into the library’s online search engine, and we had a revelation.

Math stories work!

I need to distinguish math stories from that dreaded staple of math textbooks and standardized tests, the story problem. Math stories are to story problems what sugar is to saccharine, or hiking a beautiful mountain trail is to look at photos of a beautiful mountain trail. Saccharine, photos, and story problems assume that the goal is the answer. But what’s important here is the actual experience.

The first math stories I brought home recently were the Sir Cumference books. Our local library had two of them, so I ordered them and placed them on the table by the couch where we keep our books in progress. My daughter was immediately drawn to them — she loves knights. The titles are wonderful: Sir Cumference and the Dragons of Pi; Sir Cumference and the First Round Table. She devoured the two I had ordered that day, all by herself.

That evening, after the kids were in bed, my husband told me something with awe on his face: “Do you know that our daughter explained to me the relationship between the number of vertices and edges in a geometric solid?”

“Sir Cumference,” I answered.

“Sir What?

In each story, the characters (charmingly named things like “Lady Di of Ameter”) take part in solving a mystery involving math. I am sure that my daughter had no idea that she was “learning” anything of any use, but she was clearly retaining concepts, some of them much more advanced than the math she is able to do on paper. The next day I went to the Bookshop and got the whole series, since the library doesn’t have it. They’ve been in constant rotation ever since.

Recently I was at a meeting and recommended these books. Another mom recommended a book that she’d recommended before, but now that I’d had the Sir Cumference experience I was starting to get it. The Adventures of Penrose the Mathematical Cat starts with an introduction about the real Penrose, and it has his actual photo. Then the story immediately dips into fantasy.

The real Penrose likes to sleep on his mistress’s math papers and books. The fictional Penrose interacts with characters from those papers that come to life and pose him questions he (and your child) had never considered before. The topics covered, as in Sir Cumference, are often rather esoteric, but they lead to deep understanding rather than a shallow attainment of a skill. My daughter loved the chapter about creating stars within other shapes. The chapter on base 2 led her and her brother to spend some time trying to stump each other with bigger and bigger base 2 numbers to translate to base 10.

Another example of math stories is recommended Heddi Craft: the Life of Fred series. As the publisher describes it: “In his everyday life he first encounters the need for each new part of mathematics, and then comes the mathematics.” Each chapter presents Fred with obstacles that can be overcome with math, and ends with a small number of math problems related to the text. Heddi says that the beauty of it is that it’s not a textbook chapter with 20 questions of each type, but rather a simple quiz that makes sure the child gets it, then moves on.

These three examples are all rather different in their form, but their aim is the same: If you create a world in which math matters, kids will learn it. And all three of these worlds draw kids in, sometimes without their knowing that it’s the least bit educational. And they will acquire a deep understanding rather than a superficial skill that they can easily forget over summer break.

The knowledge kids acquire depends on the child, his or her math skills, and — I think this is key — the involvement of the parent or teacher. I have seen this quite clearly: Sir Cumference was just left strewn about our house. My daughter reads them, but we have never actually sat down and done any math associated with them because I was just enjoying how much she was enjoying them and talking about the concepts she was learning.

When she saw Penrose, however, she refused at first to even look at it. “That’s boring,” she said. No knights. No color pictures. Lots and lots of text. So one night when she was drying off from her shower, I just sat down and started reading the first story out loud. My involvement, this time, led to a very different type of interaction. She was not only interested in the book, but willing to do some of the exercises with me, and then inspired to go off on her own and do more.

Last year I attempted to do the “leave it lying around the house” method with Life of Fred, and got the same “that’s boring” response. I think what she really means is, “I’m going to need your involvement here,” so when we’re finished with Penrose, I think I will once again start Life of Fred and see what happens.

If you’re interested in these books and more, check out Living Math, a wonderful math resources website. She doesn’t have a page specifically for math stories, but many of the books she recommends are in story form.

Posted in Education, Homeschooling.

3 Responses

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  1. Suki says

    A few more math stories:

Continuing the Discussion

  1. And we’re… off! Sorta. Kinda. Getting there. – Avant Parenting linked to this post on August 17, 2010

    […] practicing magic. Neither had any interest in studying much of anything, except my daughter and our Math Stories excursion. I had no problem with that. I may be a classical homeschooler at heart, but my […]

  2. Real chemistry for kids – Avant Parenting linked to this post on September 22, 2012

    […] Math stories […]

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