The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdos

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Picture books about math are a terrific way to help explain concepts, especially to younger kids who may be more visual.  The Boy Who Loved Math is a picture book about math that works for kids of all ages–even high schoolers!

Deborah Heiligman tells the story of Paul Erdos, a Hungarian mathematician who worked with others all over the world on mathematical problems.  Paul, who was the son of math teachers, was peculiar when he was growing up, to say the least.  Instead of trying to make him conform to society’s norms, though, his mother worked to accommodate his eccentricities.  Though many of his quirks stayed with him throughout his life, Paul–or “Uncle Paul” as he became known to many–found that many people were pleased to deal with his odd behavior if it meant the chance to work with such a brilliant man.  The Boy Who Loved Math is a good story because it’s just plain interesting to read about Erdos.  You might think a biography of a mathematician would be dry and boring, but this is a book filled with humorous and interesting anecdotes, such as the time Erdos stabbed a tomato juice carton with a knife because he couldn’t figure out how to open it.  It’s also a good story because it shows that a person can still be successful without conforming to all of society’s norms.  In fact, that might even lead to success in some cases.  The author’s note in the back of the book includes more information for those who want more detail, too.

LeUyen Pham’s illustrations are a perfect fit for this book.  They’re bright and interesting and just enjoyable to look at–after we read it together, I found both my nine year old and my four year old pulling it back out again to look through several times.  What is most interesting and fitting, though, is the way numbers and history are woven into each illustration.  As it says in the illustrator’s note in the back, “wherever possible, [she] tried to include some sort of mathematical concept or theory into a composition, whether in the form of equations, graphs, or number groups.”  The note goes on to explain, page by page, the concepts included in each picture.  This would be a great discussion starter for older math students as such topics as harmonic primes–and many other types of prime numbers, amicable numbers, and other higher-level mathematical concepts are included.

Before I read this book I had never heard of Paul Erdos, but this story made him real to me, which is exactly what he wanted to do with math for the rest of the world.  The Boy Who Loved Math is one of those rare picture books where students of all ages can learn new information, so make sure you check it out!

Q & A – Math Without Textbooks?

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Question:

Currently my elementary aged daughter is working through Rod and Staff Math. She is on grade level but we are taking an entire year to cover each textbook. She will do the textbook work but gets overwhelmed if I attempt more than 2-3 formal lessons per week. So the non-textbook days she works on sewing, knitting, and cooking. I think this is giving her a well rounded math background and not killing her desire to do math. However my friends are telling me that I am handicapping my daughter by moving so slowly with such a basic math text. They say I need to pick up the pace and cover at least one and half to two books per year! They imply that my dd must be a bit slow to need so much time. I don’t think so; I thought going at the child’s pace was a good thing. Am I wrecking her future? Would you count practical skills for math education? I’m so upset. Please share your thoughts.

 

Answer:

Sounds like your daughter is very blessed to have you as her mother! You know your child better than anyone, including your opinionated friends, so prayerfully following your gut in regards to teaching your daughter math is the best advice I can give. What has worked for the children of your friends is not necessarily going to work for your daughter, or for my daughters.

Not being one to do anything “just because”, I look at the “whys” of teaching math, and I keep those goals in mind when deciding what and how I will teach. My desire is to raise virtuous young women who will be successful, helpful, and blessed, and my choice of educational goals is based on this desire. On deciding what math skills I believe are needed, I went to Proverbs 31, where the infamous Bathsheba describes an idyllic wife, who just so happens to be quite math savvy.

 Proverbs 31:10 – 29

Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies. The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her, So that he shall have no need of spoil. She will do him good and not evil, All the days of her life. She seeketh wool, and flax, and worketh willingly with her hands. She is like the merchants’ ships; She bringeth her food from afar. She riseth also while it is yet night, And giveth meat to her household, And a portion to her maidens. She considereth a field, and buyeth it: With the fruit of her hands she planteth a vineyard. She girdeth her loins with strength, And strengtheneth her arms. She perceiveth that her merchandise is good: Her candle goeth not out by night. She layeth her hands to the spindle, And her hands hold the distaff. She stretched out her hand to the poor; Yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy. She is not afraid of the snow for her household: For all her household are clothed with scarlet. She maketh herself coverings of tapestry; Her clothing is silk and purple. Her husband is known in the gates, When he sitteth among the elders of the land. She maketh fine linen, and selleth it; And delivereth girdles unto the merchant. Strength and honour are her clothing; And she shall rejoice in time to come. She openeth her mouth with wisdom; And in her tongue is the law of kindness. She looketh well to the ways of her household, And eateth not the bread of idleness. Her children arise up, and call her blessed; Her husband also, and he praiseth her. Many daughters have done virtuously, But thou excellest them all. 

Now let’s take a look at the practical skills in which this gal is learned:

• She is good with money and won’t easily be taken advantage of
• She has good fiscal sense
• She spins, weaves, and sews
• She shops and knows a good product and value when she sees it
• She cooks
• She manages employees
• She runs businesses, and understands profit margin
• She buys and sells, and is fair and just in her dealings
• She sows and she reaps, making a profit to expand her family’s wealth
• She financially helps those in need, tithing to the poor.

This woman is not ignorant. She has the math skills to maintain numerous businesses and employees, run her household, manage her family’s finances, and do right by her husband and children. Not only is she virtuous, but she is a math genius!

Based on the above list of practical skills, what math skills would a modern Proverbs 31 woman need?

• Customary and metric measurements of liquids and solids
• Add, subtract, multiply and divide whole numbers, fractions, and decimals
• Geometry to include figures, construction, angles, symmetry
• Budgeting including positive and negative numbers
• Comparison shopping
• Price per unit
• Traveling costs (MPG)
• Inventorying
• Sales and sales tax
• Ratios
• Figuring percentages
• Payroll/Bookkeeping
• Time and time management
• Charts and graphs
• Problem analysis and solving
• Basic economic principles

How did the virtuous woman learn all these math skills? I’d venture to guess it wasn’t by sitting at a desk with textbooks, plodding through problem after problem of seemingly irrelevant information. More likely it was while working at her own pace alongside her mother, striving to someday be among those called blessed, watching and emulating the practical skills that don’t stifle the desire to do math but make it just another part of life. And that, my friend, is a wonderful thing.