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How Murder Saved Math

Or, how I learned to stop doing worksheets and love math

A twice-exceptional high schooler recently completed an assignment to write a “mathography” explaining her relationship with math as well as how she saw herself as a mathematician and math student. Her “murderous” response highlights how easy it is to overlook math talent if the instructional strategies don’t match the student’s preferred ways of accessing and engaging with information. Narrative explanations of math concepts are a way to ignite a student’s interest and propel their love of learning. Plus, starting the academic year by having students write their own “mathographies” yields tremendous insights about how to support their mathematical growth.

My memories of math begin with my first, much despised elementary school. I was taught math at about the level of complexity you’d expect: memorizing useless factoids, reciting times tables, and worksheets. So many worksheets.

I detested math. And why wouldn’t I? As far as I was concerned, it was all just meaningless busywork. As I moved up through the grades, so did I move in stubbornness. Our school sorted us into three groups based on math ability; people told me I had enough skill for the first group, but I was just so obstinate, dragging my feet about doing the worksheets, that they knocked me down to the second group. I didn’t care. I genuinely could not think of a single real-world application for counting to anything further than six. (See note below on my thoughts on the number six.)

Things changed on a dime on a certain Christmas day when I was 8. My parents got me a box set of math books for Christmas. You’d assume that it was the worst gift imaginable, and so did I at first… until I started reading them. It was a combination of the quippy wit the writing carried, the silly and often violent stories, and, strangest of all, the actual material. Almost instantly, I was hooked. I’d only ever seen the dull side of math before, and I thought of it as nothing more than that as a result, but the books showed me something else. They showed me clever puzzles and interesting trivia and math magic tricks. They showed me that math could be pretty neat. It could even be fun.

Those books are called Murderous Maths, and they are brilliant.

I could probably write a whole essay of its own on how fun Murderous Maths books are to read, and how much they appealed to me in particular as a reading-loving and kind of morbid elementary schooler who adored books about violence and murder and all those other things adults worried I wasn’t old enough for. But that’s not the important part here. The important part is that I binge-read the entire box set over and over and thus found myself with both a sudden fascination for math AND math knowledge several years earlier than I was supposed to have it.

When I transferred schools at the end of third grade, I was given a math placement test and instantly shot up a good four levels, so that I was studying pre-algebra in 4th grade. In addition to standard math classes, my new school also offered “math circle” on Fridays, a special class where we played around with logic puzzles and the very rules of math. I found arithmetic and algebra didn’t interest me much, but I really liked chance problems, patterns in integers, and studying datasets. I later learned there were names for those: probability, number theory, and statistics. As it turns out, I’m taking a statistics class this year. And it’s pretty much my ideal class as far as math goes. That’s kinda neat. I can’t promise I’ll do perfect, but I’m hoping to have a good time, at least. And, not to commit murder of any kind.

Note: Why six, you ask? When I was little, I distinctly thought of seven as the point where numbers get big. One through six seemed “small” whereas seven and onward were “BIG.” I don't know why I thought this. It's probably just arbitrary. I do really like 6, though.

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