Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Selecting Literature for Math Instruction

In thinking about choosing and using children's literature in the mathematics classroom, my students and I spend considerable time on the topic of evaluating the appropriateness of books for instruction. With so many reviews and tidbits of information at our disposal, how does one choose? If a book receives a 3 or 4 on the Horn Book scale, is it worthy? What about books that are poorly evaluated by The School Library Journal, but rated enthusiastically by other reviewers? Because students are new to process of critically evaluating literature, they look to "expert" reviews for guidance, but when there is not clear concurrence on a work, they are often stumped as to how to rate a selection.

Because of this, I introduce them to two sets of evaluation criteria and practice the art of critiquing books with them. The first set of guidelines comes from the November 2000 article entitled Making Informed Choices: Selecting Children's Trade Books for Mathematics Instruction (from Teaching Children Mathematics), the authors present the scale below for evaluating mathematics trade books.

I like the notion of using a continuum to rate books in these five areas, as not all books will be outstanding in every one. Indeed, the authors conclude with this statement:
"A rare mathematics trade book would excel in all five criteria; many books will be noteworthy in one or more aspects but weak in another dimension. Most mathematics trade books are potential resources for instruction if the teacher devises ways to use them to help children learn concepts meaningfully."
One cannot dismiss the importance of the teacher's ability to think creatively about these things. It is one thing to suggest useful books, but teachers must then take a suggested book and develop a motivating and engaging lesson based on its use.

The second set of criteria comes from the book New Visions for Linking Literature and Mathematics by Phyllis and David Whitin. Briefly outlined they look like this:
Mathematical integrity
  • accuracy of the mathematical ideas and vocabulary
  • functional use of math in believable contexts
  • accessibility of ideas through illustrations, analogies, real-life examples, clear explanation
An aesthetic dimension
  • heightened appreciation of form and design
  • compelling illustrations, charts, diagrams, photographs
  • well-crafted, beautiful language
Potential for varied responses
  • hook the reader by the intrigue of the story
  • open-ended nature of the illustrations
  • natural integration of mathematical ideas
  • invitational tone, not didactic
Racial, cultural and gender inclusiveness
  • free of bias and stereotypes
  • content, language and illustrations promote equity and diversity
These criteria, for the most part, embody the qualities that teachers look for in selecting any book for the classroom. In fact, the authors state in the introduction to their criteria that:
"First and foremost, math-related books should be good literature."
The Whitins carefully consider a range of books and their classroom applications in ways that allow teachers to meet curriculum objectives in both language arts and mathematics. This is exactly where the book differs from so many others that offer up suggestions for integrating children's literature into math instruction. It's dual emphasis leads to a general exclusion of books that are didactic in nature, and written expressly for instruction, albeit in perhaps more interesting ways than a textbook, but certainly nowhere near as entertaining as those that more naturally integrate mathematical ideas. (To learn more about these criteria, you can read the introduction online.)

For my students, the challenge then becomes one of finding a way to blend the guidelines in these two examples in order to come up with some personal measures for evaluating children's books for instruction. In many cases, the responses students have to a book are visceral, and no matter how well the book scores on the majority of criteria, this initial response, or gut feeling, may override all other reasonable responses to it. One example of this is Feast for 10 by Cathryn Falwell. In the last two years, nearly every group of students I share this with dislikes the book. Why? They don't like the illustrations. Even though the book scores relatively well in the other categories, students say they won't use it. Then I ask the all-important question: "If you won't use this text, then name another counting book that features African-American children or families that you can use instead." Silence. The fact that they haven't seen any other books that promote this kind of diversity is astonishing. This is a powerful moment for students, and one that encourages them to view more holistically the books they are evaluating.

I don't know that I have lived up to the title of this post yet. I suppose I hope merely to offer some insights into the process I teach others to use, and the one I use myself. The best tool I have in finding books for instruction is to read, read, read. I spend a lot of time in libraries and bookstores, really looking closely at this amazing world of children's literature.

If you're still not convinced of the value of using children's literature to teach math, you should read the article Using Storybooks to Teach Math by Marilyn Burns (my hero in all things related to pedagogy in elementary math.)

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed your article and found it to be an interesting idea. I want to try it with my students. Good luck!