Once Upon a Torus: How I Learned to Talk Math

It began when I tested out of the math requirement as a college freshman. High school calculus had drained my confidence and scoring a pass was a tremendous relief. Nearly a decade later, I realized my mistake.

As a grad student, I rediscovered that not only was I good at math but I also kind of loved it. For reasons that made sense at the time, I didn’t allow this revelation to alter my humanities-leaning career trajectory. But it nagged at me.

A few, short years later, I had a math-mad girl of my own. And for her, I vowed that things would be different.

When my daughter started coming home from kindergarten with projects like this (a computer with an empty tape dispenser mouse) that she'd built during free time to do calculations, I took it as a sign to up my math game.
I realized that my daughter was keen on math when she started coming home from kindergarten with projects like this (a computer with an empty tape dispenser mouse) that she’d built during free time to do calculations.

The odds were against us. Research indicates that many girls lose interest in math by middle school. Negative stereotypes and cultural cues play a role, as does flagging confidence and the tedium of “school math.” Exposure to mentors and role models can help, but my husband and I? We’re humanities people.

Here’s the thing: I’m a hacker at heart. I started thinking about the correlation between the number of words spoken at home and children’s literacy and wondered if making an effort to include shapes, numbers, and patterns into our everyday conversation could help.

So I learned to talk math. We played games and worked on all kinds of puzzles, but mostly, my little girl and I read together at bedtime. Math stories worked their way into the rotation.

When she was five or six, we found Math: A Book You Can Count On, which offers up personified profiles for concepts like pi and zero. Then, we tackled prime numbers and factoring with You Can Count on Monsters. Growing Patterns: Fibonacci Numbers in Nature had us hunting the sequence on walks through the woods. Classics like The Adventures of Penrose the Mathematical Cat, The Number Devil: A Mathematical Adventure, and The Man Who Counted: A Collection of Mathematical Adventures began igniting conversations and triggering connections throughout the day, not just at bedtime.

"The Beauty of Math" by Olivia Steger, 10. Photo by Jen Citrolo.
Reading math stories together inspired artwork and poems. “The Beauty of Math” by Olivia Steger, 10. Photo copyright: Jen Citrolo.

When my daughter became fascinated by fractals (thanks to The Code) a few years later, I tracked down a box of Droste cocoa so we could inspect its’ famously recursive image over steaming cups of chocolate. A stalwart fan of The Phantom Tollbooth, she delighted in the discovery of Chuck Jones’ Academy Award-winning animated short of Norton Juster’s The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics.

It turns out that math stories matter. In March 2015, the Rockefeller University awarded the Lewis Thomas Prize for Writing About Science to a mathematician for the first time in its 22-year history. Two, in fact. Co-awardees Steven Strogatz of Cornell University and Ian Stewart of The University of Warwick were recognized for “books and essays [which] have a dimension of inspiration” representing the “the language of science.”

Coincidentally, my now-tween and I had just finished reading Stewart’s Letters to a Young Mathematician, written as a series of encouraging letters to “Meg,” a young American friend. At the start, Meg is a high school student weighing whether to pursue math studies in college. By the end, she is a tenured professor. The insider’s view mixes philosophy with practical advice, most of it accessible (and much of it timely) for a math-minded middle schooler.

I can’t predict what the future holds. Happily, my daughter has made it halfway through seventh-grade with her passion for math burning bright as ever. Joining a Math Circle led by a local college professor has surely helped, by providing her with a social forum to talk math with others. Now she tells me stories, too.

A few favorite resources for math-mad middle schoolers:

Jen Citrolo is on a lifelong mission to learn cool stuff, from carpentry to circuits to coding…and beyond. Luckily, she’s got a STEM-y tween to conspire with and a wise husband who’s keen on taking the dog for long walks whenever the safety goggles come out. They live in New York’s Lower Hudson Valley.