Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Elephant in the Room

The last few days I've been five hours away from home (by car) working with teachers at the Lighthouse Academy's national conference.  While they were learning the Math in Your Feet program and, much to my delight, having a whole lot of fun making rhythm, patterns and math with their feet inside their very own blue tape squares, my seven year old was at home...making other kinds of math:

I found this geoboard on the table this morning.  She says her doll Amelia wanted to show her how she could tap dance inside a square.  And then a circle.  And then a hexagon.  "Which has the most area, do you think?" I asked, not even knowing if she'd know what I meant.  "Oh, the square," she answered blithely.  Certainly looks that way to me:

"Oh, and Mama," she says, "I also made a napkin.  A fancy one, for parties.  And look, I did some beading on it.  It's a frieze pattern, white, pink, white pink.  Oh, and I didn't use two pieces of thread.  I used the same thread, up and down, up and down.  See?"  I am often delighted by her explorations, but this one took the cake.  I had no idea she had been paying such close attention when I doodled frieze patterns for her, on the day she had a high fever.  I also had no idea she had such facility with beads.

It's amazing to watch the myriad ways she finds (all on her own) to represent her growing mathematical knowledge.  Pianos, geoboards, sewing, straws and beads, even while riding her bike.

This flurry of math in the making has me reflecting on how I used to think that math was some kind of  inaccessible, abstract magic trick, a sort of in-joke that excluded us common folk, but now I realize that math is completely not that at all.  The reality of math as most of us know it is like that story where three men are standing in a dark room touching different parts of an elephant.  None of them has the full picture because they're only perceiving individual elements of the whole animal.  

The reality, I'm discovering, is that math is just like that elephant: a large, expansive, three dimensional, intelligent, sensitive, expressive creature.  The problem is that most of us have been standing around in that dark room since about kindergarten, grasping its tail, thinking "this is what math is and, personally, I don't think it's for me".  We've been blind to the larger, incredibly beautiful picture that would emerge if only we would turn on the lights and open our eyes.  (Or, in reality, if we could find someone who would help us understand what we're looking at once those lights go on.)

I'm so glad that my daughter and I are starting to really get to know, understand and, amazingly, even have fond feelings for this math elephant.  The kid is just heading into second grade and I know we have so much more math to do and learn about, but what math we do understand seems to be connected to pretty much everything we see, or do, or observe.


  1. Malke, I'm getting embarrassed at how many times I've commented on your posts to simply say that I like them. Oh Well. Your elephant story is so moving. Thank you.

  2. And I have started wondering if I'm overstating the point, lol! But, the thing is, although not every day has some relevatory moment in it, math does just seem to be all around us in some really wonderful ways. So, no worries, Sue! I'm always pleased to hear from you! :-)

  3. I'm sure you will have come across the book "The Elephant in the Classroom"

  4. Thanks Juliet - I hadn't heard of the book you mention, but it looks interesting! Thanks!

  5. Malke, can I quote your elephant analogy in my math book? With credit, of course, and a link to your blog and Math in Your Feet website.

  6. Thanks! I'm starting to work on the paperback layout, and I need some longer quotations to fill in blank pages (so that chapters always start nicely on the right-hand page). And I've loved this since I first read it, so it was naturally the first thing I thought of to add in.


Thanks for reading. I would love to hear your thoughts and comments!


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