Bringing mathematics to the community
By Janice Dickson
February 27, 2014
Ask most school-aged kids and they may tell you that math is ‘scary.’ But one Western professor would like to change all that.
“The core problem is fear, dislike or they hate it,” said Western Education professor George Gadanidis. “Math has a very negative image.”
Led by Gadanidis, the Math Performance Centre hopes to change that. The program seeks to promote and support the celebration of mathematics through the arts. Specifically, Gadanidis works with teachers to revolutionize the way children learn mathematics, and shatters the myth that math must be boring, by marrying it with an unlikely partner: the arts.
Using drama, song, skits and art, students not only learn math more effectively but also perform and share their learning stories with each other, their families and their communities. The centre also provides a wealth of online teaching and learning resources to help other instructors, students and parents.
Gadanidis, described by colleagues as no less than “visionary,” works in schools throughout the Greater Toronto Area where he uses music and drama to help students learn math. He videotapes students performing in different ways, such as singing or acting out plays, all about math. He posts the videos to the Math Performance Festival website, mathfest.ca, a site for math and science teachers to upload videos of their students performing about the two subjects.
Curently, Gadanidis is taking a one-year sabbatical from Western to work with students at a number of elementary schools, including St. Andrews Public School in Toronto.
The purpose of his most-recent project is to expose students to mathematicians, with the goal of breaking down common misconceptions about who they are and what they do. This classroom activity involves videotaping students who will ask mathematicians any questions of their choosing.
The videos will be sent to a group of mathematicians assisting the project. They will videotape themselves answering the children’s questions. Once there’s been an exchange of videos, the mathematicians will visit the students in the classroom.
Gadanidis introduced this particular project to Ian Brodie, a teacher at St. Andrews. The pair met more than five years ago when Gadanidis was giving a presentation at the Fields Institute, a centre for mathematical research on the University of Toronto’s campus.
Brodie recalled Gadanidis using linking cubes, small plastic square cubes that fit together, to show how odd numbers add up to whole numbers. Gadanidis was looking for classrooms to show both teachers and students a new way of learning math using linking cubes.
“You start building squares out of linking cubes and all of a sudden my little Grade 2 kids are doing Grade 7 algebra,” Brodie said.
Gadanidis began working with Grades 1-3, and, this year, will work with Grades 4-8 at St. Andrews.
The professor also explores the links between math and arts. He and his daughter, Molly, have been writing children’s books about math since she was in Grade 2. Molly is now in Grade 7 and they continue to write math books. They take existing stories, such as Little Red Riding Hood, and rewrite them using math.
“It’s fun to take familiar settings and disrupt them with a surprise,” Gadanidis said.
He and Molly have written 19 children’s literature math books.
St. Andrews’ principal Anna Vieira said they are lucky to have Gadanidis in their school. “When you give him a topic he comes back with a story that he’s written with his daughter. We can ask him something and he can create a lesson around that,” Vieira said.
Brodie said the kids write plays or comic strips to explain what they have learned in math, and show their parents. He asks parents to write back with a message about what their child learned and what they themselves learned about math.
“We take all of those comments, and the kids’ comments, and put them together to create lyrics for a song. It’s really cool,” Brodie said. He and Gadanidis videotape the students singing their songs and post the videos to the Math Performance Festival website.
Gadanidis, whose work is funded by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), receives a lot of positive feedback from parents. “Imagine kids coming home and being able to tell a story about math,” he said.
Vieira said the work Gadanidis is doing with both teachers and students is fantastic. “We have a lot of kids that are math phobic. He really breaks it down to such simple things that they don’t realize they’re doing math,” she said.
In the end, when Gadanidis talks about math, he talks about breaking boundaries.
“Really, what’s missing in our society,” he said, “is that there are no stories about math.”
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