Inspired by the Number Devil:
Imagine Jason, a struggling math student in the midst of summer school, getting swooped away to learn about the coordinate plane from a Pablo Picasso painting. Or Mohammed, a young boy who finds a golden canteen which, when rubbed, brings forth the Number Genie who takes him on a mathematical adventure around the world. Jason and Muhammad were once just figments of our students’ imagination, but through our Mathematical Adventure Project, the students were able to bring these characters to life in self-published novels about math.
The inspiration for this project came when a parent recommended a book called The Number Devil to Sarah for use in her math class. This novel by Hans Magnus Enzensberger tells the story of Robert, a young boy who just doesn’t get math. Then, for twelve consecutive nights, he dreams of the Number Devil, a testy but loyal character who awakens Robert to his own abilities as a mathematician. We loved the story, and had already been exploring ways to incorporate literacy across the curriculum. As we discussed the possibilities, our excitement grew and a project idea developed—we would help our students write a novel, inspired by The Number Devil, which would incorporate writing, art, and the beauty of math.
The first phase of the project began in math class as Sarah led students through a class reading of The Number Devil. In each chapter, the Number Devil teaches Robert a new math concept, such as prime numbers (which the Number Devil calls prima donnas) and square roots (which he nicknames rutabagas). Though some of the concepts were familiar to the sixth graders, others—like irrational numbers—were quite sophisticated for our students. These more advanced concepts offered a challenge for our strongest mathematicians, while offering all students a glimpse into the interesting patterns and beauty underlying the field of mathematics. After reading each chapter, students completed their own “mathematical adventure”—a series of activities and practice problems created by Sarah through which they strengthened their understanding of the concept presented in that chapter. For example, if the Number Devil introduced Pascal’s triangle in a given chapter, the students would, for class work and homework, spend time looking for patterns in Pascal’s triangle and solving problems requiring the use of this mathematical tool. Also in these post-reading adventures, students would discuss something they learned from the chapter and reflect on a teacher-selected quote. This phase of the project was critical to the success of the project and our novel. We had to make sure that our sixth grade students could themselves become “Number Devils” who would teach and discover mathematical concepts in a creative and engaging way.
For some students, like Connor, reading The Number Devil provided an extra challenge. “I liked the book because most of the math concepts in the book I didn’t understand, so it was a cool way to understand them better.” For others, like Angela, it was “relaxing to take a break from our usual schedule.” For all of the students, reading a novel in math class provided a deeper understanding of topics we had already covered and an excitement for topics to come. The learning of math became more dynamic than solving 25 problems on a page as they came to see that math is a beautiful, discoverable, and exciting field to study.
After reading the novel, it was time to begin the writing process, which presented the challenge of negotiating decisions about story direction and writing craft among 25 sixth graders. We knew we needed to guide students to develop a workable story concept and make wise choices while retaining their sense of ownership as authors.
The first step was to use The Number Devil as a model for story mapping. After describing the characters and mapping the plot, the students and Melissa decided that our novel would feature similar yet original characters—a young person struggling with math and a wise mathematical guide—and a plot with a recurring event, like the dream in The Number Devil.
Next, each student submitted a story proposal for consideration by the class. We examined proposals together and collaboratively chose a concept for each class novel. One class decided on Mohammed and the Number Genie, which would be set in India and feature a math-loving genie who travels the world on a magic carpet to teach math concepts. The other group settled on Jason and the Matha Lisa, which would be set in an art museum and would star the Matha Lisa, the sister of DaVinci’s Mona Lisa, who would teach Jason math while exploring important works of art. After deciding on the basic concepts, we generated questions that we still had about the plot and developed the story even further.
Throughout the decision making process, we created activities such as gallery walks and discussions which enabled students to think through and discuss the important decisions they would have to make as authors. The gallery walk where the students looked at story proposals was particularly helpful. In this gallery walk, the story proposal (including character and basic plot ideas) that each student made was out on their desk. The students rotated around, reading through and commenting on one another’s proposals. After each student had read all of the other ideas, the class came together to pick a top five list. When students grew excited about an option that was less feasible or did not quite meet our objectives, Melissa would pose carefully-worded questions to allow them to come to a conclusion on their own. Fortunately, the students developed some ideas that were more creative and sophisticated than we ever imagined, so it was not too difficult to guide students to make wise decisions.
Now that we had our story concepts well-developed, it was time to plan and write. Small groups of students were assigned focus math concepts, and depending on their novel, they chose either a country where their chapter would take place or a piece of artwork through with their character would learn the concept. For example, one group used bricks on the great wall of China to illustrate the coordinate plane and another group used musical notes in a painting by Andy Warhol to explain the concept of Greatest Common Factor
Students went through the steps of the writing process—prewriting, drafting, revising, and editing—until they had a chapter that was ready to publish. During this process, they often met with the authors of the chapters before and after theirs, in order to ensure consistency throughout the novel. We also found it helpful at times to pose questions to the whole class about ideas authors had for their chapters. For example, one student wanted to characterize Jason as having a little crush on the Matha Lisa so we had to discuss if this would be a part of the characterization. It was a complicated and often messy process, but because the story concepts were so strong, students were excited to develop the ideas as they wrote their chapters.
One of our greatest challenges was ensuring that students were explaining their math concepts accurately in the context of a fiction novel. Though students became “experts” on their concept in math class, they had to develop a creative way to teach that concept in the context of their chapter. Students were often so excited about the fiction writing that they sped through the math explanation or left crucial parts out altogether. Other groups simply gave step-by-step processes for solving a given problem rather than taking the approach of the Number Devil which was to help Robert discover the concept. Still other groups had mathematical inaccuracies in their chapters (like mixing up the x- and y-axis). Through the editing process, we helped the students to discover these issues and make necessary changes. Sarah also had conferences with students to discuss their concepts and help them brainstorm ideas for making their chapter accurate. Despite all the editing, there were a couple of groups that slipped by us, and we discovered mathematical errors in their chapters when we were already in the publishing phase! Ultimately, students made the necessary changes, but it was a learning experience for both the students and the teachers.
It is not often that students are able to incorporate math in their writing class and writing in their math class, and meeting this challenge is exactly what sets this project apart for us. Not only were the students able to deepen their knowledge of many mathematical topics and hone their familiarity with the writing process, but they had a ton of fun along the way. Therein lay the strengths of this project: students were reading and writing about math in an authentic and seamless way.
This project, as with all projects, was not lacking in challenges. We have been teaching together for many years, however facilitating this project opened our eyes anew to the challenges that come with one another’s content area. For Sarah, helping the students edit their writing was out of her comfort zone. And for Melissa, explaining the math to the students in a way that made sense posed a new challenge. By working together to overcome these challenges, however, we know that both of our practices were improved immensely. And we were able to help the students create a beautiful product in which we can all take tremendous pride.
Student drawing of factor tree from the book.
Student drawing of Venice from the book.
Woman with Parasol
Student drawing of woman with parasol from the book.
Student Authors Celebrate
The student authors and illustrators gather for a group photo.
Student Authors Celebrate (2)
Student authors and illustrators gather for a group photo.
Book Cover: Mohammed
The student designed book cover for “Mohammed and the Number Genie.”
Book Cover: Jason and Matha Lisa
The student designed book cover for “Jason and the Matha Lisa.”