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Math through English Literacy

The writer is a former NYC teacher math teacher now teaching in Westchester county.

In the past week, we have been using material from “SpringBoard,” a College Board product, to teach our middle school students about scientific notations.

Let me preface this with the fact that as classroom teachers at the school I am currently teaching, we have no choice. The principal of our school, if not the school district supervisor, has decided that SpringBoard is the way to go. On the surface, the SpringBoard program sounds good-its proclaimed mission is to prepare students for college success. More specifically, its stated objective is to “build the critical thinking skills in reading, writing, and mathematics that lead to success in Advanced Placement courses and college.” This should not come as a surprise. After all, we are dealing with the College Board people. But does every child have the aptitude and the motivation for advanced placement classes and college? Or am I asking too many questions?

Let’s assume for the moment that aptitude and motivation are not the problem. Let’s assume that every child is college-bound. Is the SpringBoard material effective in preparing students for college?

I have used SpringBoard material for teaching 7th grade and 8th grade math. I must say that I am not impressed at all. Take, for example, this current unit called “A Traveler’s Tale.” It uses the characters from Jonathan Swift’s tale, Gulliver’s Travels, in an attempt to make things more interesting for kids. Because there are midgets and giants in this story, the “educators” at SpringBoard think that it is ideal for introducing very big numbers and very small ones. For example, one of the questions in the unit asks “if Gulliver consumes more food than 103 Lilliputians do, how many Lilliputians does this number represent?”

Does the usage of this classic tale really make things more interesting to the students? Hardly. I found that most of my students have not read Gulliver’s Travels. Even if they had, I seriously doubt that the introduction of these fictional characters will spice things up. Scientific notation is simply a way to express astronomically big or microscopically small measurements. It is a very dry topic in itself. But the concept itself is not difficult. Students simply have to learn to express extraordinarily big or extraordinarily small numbers as the product between a number which is between 1 and 10 and an exponent of 10. Because the subject matter is boring by nature, it is best to simply introduce the concept quickly and then move on. In fact, that was how I learned about scientific notation years ago when I studied math the traditional way. Alas, the authors of SpringBoard decided to make this “Traveler’s Tales” unit a week long ordeal.

This is not my only complaint. The authors of the SpringBoard series also have an awkward way of asking questions. For example, another question in this unit asks” “In terms of Gulliver’s height, use scientific notation to express the height of an insect if the insect is 10 times smaller than a person from Lilliput.” I wonder how many adults understand what is being asked here. And what is “10 times smaller”? Wouldn’t it be much more straight forward if we say that the height of an insect is 1/10 that of a Lilliputian?

Perhaps the College Board people are not entirely to blame. Throughout the movement called “Literacy Across the Curriculum,” there is an attempt to integrate all content areas, including math and science, with to literacy. The practice of encouraging students to read and write in a math class is part of that effort. That’s why you see literature being used as a springboard to the teaching of mathematical concepts.

The integration of math with literacy may not be a bad idea in itself. But we must be very clear about our priorities. In a math class, the priority is to effectively teach the math concepts and skills as required by the curriculum. The “literacy” part should not become a distraction to our basic goal. But what I keep hearing from other teachers is that the more “creative” ways of teaching math actually make it more difficult for students to learn. In contemplating any policy change, it helps to bear in mind the principle of “first do no harm.”

Quite honestly, American school children already have enough problems in math due to poor basic skills. If it were up to me, I would use any extra time to re-teach certain basic concepts and skills. The introduction of this “literacy” component is not only foolish, it is unconscionable.


1 Comment:

  • 1 Jackie Bennett
    · Dec 14, 2006 at 9:45 pm

    Anyone outside of education might think that Math with Gulliver had to be some kind of satire. Those of us who teach, however, know that this and a million other lunacies are all too true.

    How do the editors make use of the Yahoos, I wonder?

    I’m surprised though that they didn’t use “A Modest Proposal,” instead in which Swift, a satirist himself, proposes that the English dine on Irish infants as a way of solving the “Irish problem” once and for all. The mathematical possibilities are endless: the weight of the infants, the price of livestock, the estimated profit on the futures market. What a lost opportunity for children everywhere. But! There’s always a new edition at a higher price!