Sunday, March 29, 2009

My Ideal School

My ideal school
Is part of an ideal community
People aren’t separated by wealth and poverty
The richest have a little extra, the poorest still have what they need
People aren’t pulled apart by race
And they’ve learned to respect the glory of differences
If gender differences still exist, the ones who don’t fit are celebrated
They all mix together in a public school that they,
Neighborhood by neighborhood, control

My ideal school
Is close to home
The kids can visit whenever they want
Perhaps a dedicated mentor lives there
(Can’t say teacher, it makes the wrong image)

My ideal school
Has a garden and a kitchen and hot yummy food
And a beautiful place to sit and eat together
(Is it calm? Or is the excitement of the children too much for ‘calm’?)

My ideal school
Is full of resources that draw the kids’ interest
Is staffed with adults who know
That children have their own ways of thinking
That each child moves through learning in their own way
That there must be safety, both physical and emotional
That there must be affection and loving and hugs

In my ideal school
The children see adults learning
They see adults getting stuck, and then getting it, frustration and joy
Here is a woman learning cello
Here is a man learning to knit
Here are 3 grown-ups talking about a book

My ideal school has traditions
They go camping in September
They make Stone Soup together in January
Each day begins with music, someone is playing guitar and many are singing
Most everyone gathers together at lunch time and shares their food
The day and the year both have a rhythm

At my ideal school
When two kids fight
Bigger kids come help them to use words to solve their problems
The big kids help to build a deck or a chicken house, or a new classroom,
trek through the mountains and fix bikes,
take responsibility for the gardens, chickens, and maybe a sheep or a goat

My ideal school
Is part of a network of schools
That crisscross the community like a spiderweb
And each is different
So each family can find
A haven for their children
That resonates with their values.

My ideal school might not be called a school
We need a break from the past, we need a new word for a new place
Maybe it’s the Children’s Center
Except there are lots of grownups there, too,
Learning as much as the kids

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Joyful Learning

I wrote the thoughts below last September in response to E, who wrote this on Living Math forum:
>I'll have to admit, making learning fun seems like such a foreign concept,
>because school was never fun for me. Learning and fun never went hand in hand.

That shook me. I love learning new things. Sometimes it makes me bite my nails, sometimes I think I'm never gonna get it, but there's almost always a moment where my angst becomes so worth it, where I'm just glowing inside from the joy of a new skill or a new, broader understanding.

When I was in school, I was often bored, but I knew it was school that was boring, not learning. Luckily, the academic subjects came easily for me. (Except penmanship. I got a D in that in 4th grade, and I still struggle with it sometimes.) But school made me think I couldn't sing. I love to sing, so I work at it. Sometimes I do great, and sometimes not so great. I'm a slow learner with music, and many physical things. So I like lots of practice. When I was in a Unitarian church choir, I wanted to practice each song about twice as many times as what seemed reasonable to the others there. Being a slow learner shouldn't be a problem... But in school it is.

I teach math at a community college, and I give my students a "Math students bill of rights." One right is the right to learn at your own pace. I tell them that schools make that impossible, because we have to work as a group. (I do answer all homework questions, and modify each class for the group I'm working with. But if you're the one person who's slower than the group, it isn't your pace...) I've always been torn between my love of teaching, and my understanding that the best learning comes from within, and may not need a teacher.

Waldorf teachers are supposed to be learning new things all the time themselves; I assume that's so that they are in touch with both the struggles and the joys that come with learning. Maybe picking something you want to learn yourself, E, and working on it, would be a good way to find some joy in learning, so you can pass that along to your son.

One response to your post had said 'math is a different story'. I think I disagree. Math is different for homeschooling parents who are comfortable winging it with every other subject. But for the child math is just like all the rest, they learn the most if they approach it at just the right moment for them. My close friend who homeschooled did everything except math in unschooler style, trusting her daughter. But she was scared of math, so she followed a school curriculum for that, and it was the one thing her daughter didn't like. The daughter did go on to learn calculus at the community college, because she planned to be a veterinarian, but she never found as much joy in it as she could have if she hadn’t been pushed...

OK bloggers, I want to start a Joyful Math Movement, with Lockheart's Lament ( as one of our founding documents. Who wants to join?

Friday, March 27, 2009

Call for Submissions: Anthology on Learning Math Outside the Classroom

Do you…
… run a math center, math club, math circle, or other math program which people attend by choice, and at which something other than tutoring and/or homework help is provided?
… homeschool, and have exciting ideas about how kids learn math?
… do new sorts of work helping people learn math through the web?
… have ideas about how to integrate these experiences into public school classrooms, or public policy perspectives?

If you do, perhaps you’d like to add a chapter to Joyful Math: Learning Outside the Classroom, and In.

Why this anthology is needed:
Math is seldom taught well in American schools, and most people end up quite uncomfortable with it. Throughout the history of public education in this country math has troubled most students. Is it different in other countries? Can it be different here?

A number of ground-breaking projects have sprung up over the last decade, with this common thread – most are happening outside the traditional classroom setting. This anthology will include exciting reports from the frontlines of what its editor thinks of as the “joyful math movement”, and will help parents, teachers, and math enthusiasts everywhere think more clearly about how to help students learn math.

We already have an exciting core group of authors, including Julie Brennan (host of Living Math Forum and, Maria Droujkova (, Amanda Serenevy (, and the published authors Robert and Ellen Kaplan (Out of the Labyrinth: Setting Mathematics Free). Now we need to find more voices. Please send this call for submissions along to all lists, groups, blogs, wikis, sites, etc, where people doing projects like these might see it.

How to join in the fun:
If you have something to add to this anthology, we’d like to hear from you. Please give enough detail to make your unique perspective clear, and write your proposal in the same style you’d use in a chapter you’d submit later. Or simply send a first draft of your proposed chapter. Send proposals, questions, and requests for more information to Sue VanHattum at mathanthologyeditor at Deadline for proposals: May 30, 2009. Tentatively accepted contributors will be notified by June 30; chapters will be due by September 30, 2009.

Some questions for contributors:
• Describe your project. Tell stories from daily experiences. Also tell what you’ve learned from this experience. Have you had ‘aha!’ moments?
• What hurdles have you overcome in this project? How has your vision for what you’re doing changed over time?
• In an ideal world, how could public schools use your ideas/practices?

Math Salons and Base Eight

I've been doing monthly math salons at my home since the fall, where parents, kids and other adults play with math. At the last session I had decided to play with base eight, and had told participants we'd be doing 'alien math'. I waited until the last minute to look for good activities, and couldn't find anything I really liked. I did find two good activities related to binary, though, and prepared those.

The night before the salon, I laid in bed thinking up a children's story about my eight-fingered aliens. I got up early and wrote it, and then printed it in booklet form. On the first page I asked the readers to illustrate it for me. The kids really liked doing that.

In the story I claimed because their system is based on 2x2x2, these aliens are really into doubling. I also claimed that the kids figured out a code for counting up to eight using just the 3 fingers from one hand. I figured binary would come pretty easily to the aliens, and mentioning this would be the tie-in with the binary activities we'd do at the salon.

Here's the story:

Eight Fingers, by Sue VanHattum & Friends

[Dear friends, I wrote this story, but I wasn’t sure how the people looked, except for their fingers. Can you help me illustrate it with pictures? Thanks! Yours, Sue]

Once upon a time, on the planet __________, there lived people who looked very much like we do, except for one thing. On each of their two hands, they had a thumb and only three fingers.

Longer ago than anyone there remembers, they used to use stones to keep track of things. But then, just like us, they began to use their fingers to count.

Eventually, though, they starting writing down the numbers they were counting on their fingers. Just like us, they had a symbol for each number from zero up to seven. Their 0 and 1 looked like ours, an empty circle of nothing, and a tally mark for one. But the others were a little different…

But then they wrote this 1 0 to mean all eight fingers. Or to mean eight horses, or eight flowers, or eight yummy strawberries.

Do you know how they wrote nine? _____

Now, eight is a very special number, even here on Earth, and they discovered long, long ago how special it was. They liked doubling even more than we do.

If you started with one finger, and doubled once, you could hold up your two fingers in a circle. Then if you doubled again, you had all the fingers of one hand up. The next time you doubled you had all your fingers up. If you did it again, all your fingers and toes were up. Again, and you had to have a friend put all their fingers and toes up with yours. Most kids started giggling so much when they did that, it made them fall on the ground laughing.

Now all that doubling helped them discover a very neat pattern. Kids liked to tell each other the secret code that used just three fingers, and showed all the numbers from zero up to seven. Their fingers were a little more flexible than ours, and they had great fun flashing the codes for each number to each other. I wonder if you can make a code like theirs …

There’s much more to their story, of course, but I just haven’t written it yet…

There is no end

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Math Poems

I was in a mood one day, and this was my response to a math question...
(Do you know any math poems?)

Imaginary Numbers Do the Trick
by Sue VanHattum
(written on December 15, 2008)

In an email group of 4,000 homeschoolers,
a member wrote:
   My son asks, “The square root of 1 is 1,
   So what's the square root of -1 ?”
This was my reply to her…

What we call the real numbers
is everything on a number line,
positive, negative, zero.

If you're thinking about those real numbers,
on that number line,
none of the negative numbers can have a square root,
because anything times itself will come up positive
(or zero).

But, once upon a time (for real),
mathematicians dueled
by giving each other lists of thirty hard problems.
The winner got recognition
and perhaps a job.

All this dueling led to
a solution for cubic equations:
these mathematicians
created a formula
that would find the numbers
that would solve a thing
like 2x3-3x2+4x-5 = 0.

But that formula was a problem!
It came up with square roots of negative numbers,
which drove the mathematicians wild.
No, no, no. There is no such thing!
Well, maybe there could be…
and if there is,
what would it look like?

With a wave of the magic wand of imagination,
These mathematicians
made up a new number,
which later got the name i.
(Imagine it written in fancy script.)
i is the square root of -1,
so i squared must equal -1.
i is the first step in creating …
the imaginary numbers.

Picture, if you will, a new number line
of imaginaries
crossing the line of real numbers at 0,
with the real number line horizontal,
and this new one vertical.
(It looks just like x and y axes,
but now it's all one number system,
a bit more complex.)

i sits one step above zero.
Another step up this imaginary number line,
we see 2i,
2i is the square root of -4.
(It is?!
Why yes, 2i times 2i equals 4 times i squared,
and i squared equals -1,
so we get -4.
Cool, huh?)
And on it goes.

Now all of this wouldn't really solve much
if there were no square root of i,
and that seems too weird to think about.
But, once you study trigonometry
(how'd that get in here?!),
the solution to that little problem
is actually quite elegant.
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