Thursday, October 23, 2014

Percy Jackson's Math Class

[I haven't written this post yet, and I know it's going to be more rambly than usual. Fair warning.]

My eldest child has been a big fan of Percy Jackson. Me, too, to be honest. I'm reading The Blood of Olympus now. The first Percy Jackson series is one of the few non-graphic novels my son read by choice. So this was a natural click for me: The Percy Jackson Problem at the New Yorker by Rebecca Mead.

It begins with a quote from Neil Gaiman (another family favorite):
“I don’t think there is such a thing as a bad book for children,” he argued, adding that it was “snobbery and … foolishness” to suggest that a certain author or particular genre might be a baleful influence upon young reading minds—be it comic books or the works of R. L. Stine. Fiction is a “gateway drug” to reading, Gaiman said. “Every child is different. They can find the stories they need to, and they bring themselves to stories. A hackneyed, worn-out idea isn’t hackneyed and worn out to them.” Well-meaning adults, he continued, can easily kill a child’s love of reading: “Stop them reading what they enjoy, or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like, the 21st-century equivalents of Victorian ‘improving’ literature. You’ll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and worse, unpleasant.”
If you're a math teacher, how can you read this and not connect? We've been feeding students, as a profession, "worthy-but-dull" math for ages. (Worthy when it was good, that is. When it was bad, we're talking Tartarus.)

The author's argument is the counter to this idea that all reading is good.
Riordan’s books prompt an uneasy interrogation of the premise underlying the “so long as they’re reading” side of the debate—at least among those of us who want to share Neil Gaiman’s optimistic view that all reading is good reading, and yet find ourselves by disposition closer to the Tim Parks end of the spectrum, worried that those books on our children’s shelves that offer easy gratification are crowding out the different pleasures that may be offered by less grabby volumes.
I don't like this argument for reading. But I have made similar arguments in math. After a steady diet of exercises, students have no interest in problems.

But I think what I mean is that students have no experience with problems. The engagement that comes from finding a really meaty one. The question is whether reading Percy Jackson is really reading. I would argue that spending time on Tumblr is not reading (a current teenager discussion), and wonder if graphic novels are reading. (Aforementioned comic-obsessed son.)

I think this is an issue K-12. In elementary, there is a danger that teachers don't believe that students can do real problems. In high school, a desire to have the students do the basics first. Working with preservice and inservice teachers I try to stress and give experience with contexts that are problematic, but accessible. If it's not a problem, it's not doing math, no matter how many numbers and operations are involved.

Just being letters and words doesn't make it reading?

The author isn't so concerned with the Percy Jackson books, as with the forthcoming book of Greek myths as told by Riordan, writing in Percy's voice.
While the D’Aulaires wrote that “Persephone grew up on Olympus and her gay laughter rang through the brilliant halls,” Percy’s introduction to the story of Demeter’s daughter reads, “I have to be honest. I never understood what made Persephone such a big deal. I mean, for a girl who almost destroyed the universe, she seems kind of meh.”
It seems to me that this is some of what the common core struggle is about. Parents don't recognize newer curricula as math. (Which, of course, really has nothing to do with the common core in most cases; the Common Core gave them something to be against.)

The author closes with this concern:
What if instead of urging them on to more challenging adventures on other, potentially perilous literary shores, it makes young readers hungry only for more of the palatable same? There’s a myth that could serve as an illustration here. I’m sure my son can remind me which one.
Ooh, clever. I'm sure she knows which myth. What if after doing Desmos and Three Acts investigations, students don't want to do hackneyed word problems from the end of the chapter? That's probably not fair. Will they not be interested in the real problems of calculus, geometry, analysis and algebra? I think if we had a Percy Jackson parallel in math, the greater numbers of young people interested in math would mean a boom in STEM fields. The Percy Jackson problem? We should all have such problems.

This post started when I discovered no way to comment on the article. Because I wanted to share my daughter's response. And I want to think of this in terms of math, too. Here's Ysabela:
If they were arguing against, like, Twilight, where the language use is bad because the author has no writing experience, AND the plot and ideas are unoriginal/problematic, then I would agree with them. When Twilight becomes people's standard for literature, they start accepting total crap without a second glance, which is bad.
But Riordan understands language? And his plots (at least in the original series) were good? I'm not saying it was Harry Potter, but Percy Jackson was quality, and saying it wasn't just because the language is accessible to people who aren't scholars is just... really elitist. Like I know a lot of people who find reading really, really hard, but were able to enjoy Percy Jackson because it actually made sense to them. Plus, the series was narrated by a teenage boy, it was realistic.
And don't even get me STARTED on the D'Aulaires, they're SO AWFUL. They watered down the myths so much they were almost unrecognizable, "for kids," and then wrote it at like a college reading level. Plus they organized it like total tools. I can't express in words how much I would have rather had a Riordan book of myths than the D'Aulaires when I was younger.
Hello Katie @ Society 6
As she steps out the door now, she's railing against having spent two weeks on factoring. Because the last day before the mini fall break they learned the quadratic formula. "And it always works!" Do you know why it works? "He showed us from \(ax^2+bx+c\). It's extra credit on the test." How much more dangerous is it that she believes math is that pointless and uninteresting?

So, I think I'll side with Neil Gaiman on this one.

1 comment:

  1. I'm firmly in the "all reading is good reading" camp as well as the camp "any math they want to do is good math for them to do." Why?
    (1) all things are connected and there are ways to build from the activity they are on to other things.
    (2) showing respect for them and their choices gives them the power and responsibility to continue their own exploration.
    (3) interest and curiosity are the attributes that will take them farthest, not specific skills that will come from a particular activity we force them into. There is enough amazing material easily available if they find something they want to explore.

    A couple of phrases to get people going: "Oh, you like [book X]? Cool, so did I. Maybe you'll also like [book y]"

    or "Oh, you like [book X]? Do you think that I'll like it? What was your favorite part?"

    Similar conversations in math exist, but finding them is an exercise left for the reader.

    Also, fwiw, I loved the D'Aulaires' books (greek and norse) as well as other versions that were both more or less serious. Perhaps you won't like the language for your kids, but is also very funny and better when you already know the stories he is retelling.