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Once Upon A Time. . .

Once upon a time, actually last month,  I was asked to speak to a group of university students from the University of the Philippines, Manila, on the topic of Digital Storytelling.  The whole talk took place from my home in Southern California via the Net.  Digital Storytelling is really no different than any other storytelling except you are using digital tools to compose and create the story.  But, storytelling in itself, is a powerful tool that most teachers don’t take advantage of.

It is basically assumed that storytelling is for small children, or for entertainment like movies or plays.  It doesn’t belong in an academic classroom.  But I argue it does.  Back in the 1980’s, Barron Publishing printed a series of math story books.  The first was called, “Algebra The Easy Way.”  Before “Harry Potter” and “Lord of the Rings”, the land of Carmorra existed with its carefree and happy inhabitants.  But like any good story, an evil presence appeared to challenge the King and his wizard on solving a problem or losing the kingdom.  159072843_926ce6Of course, math was the answer, and the story moves through a normal series of modern math chapters explaining in a story format how they could answer the Gremlin with math.  In the end–the Gremlin lost.  However, he returns in the book of Geometry, Trigonometry, and Calculus.  The key was students were completing a journey, an adventure, and learning math along the way.  What could be more fun!

I was introduced into math storytelling back in the mid-1970’s at Aviation High School in Manhattan Beach, California.  Originally hired as a math tutor, I was introduced to one of the math teachers whose subject was, “Alice in Wonderland.”   I was given a copy of the book to read and study.  On one page was the story of Alice, and on the opposite page detailed the mathematics that were hidden in the story.  I was so intrigued in how Lewis Carroll, a mathematician himself, created a visual representation of what was really quite a set of complicated mathematics concepts.


You have to understand that the mathematics in the late 19th century was quite turbulent.  The discoveries of non-Euclidean geometries, development of abstract symbolic algebra, and imaginary numbers were all the rage in those cigar and pipe smoked filled rooms as mathematicians continued to argue for some of kind of normalcy away from the madness at hand.  Okay, you’re getting ahead of me.

The “Advice from a caterpillar” to Alice creates some interesting results as she tries to figure the correct proportions and positions of the mushroom, where the caterpillar sits on, which will bring her growth and proportions back to normal.  In fact, even the “Hooka” that the caterpillar smokes is a symbol of Arabic origin, like “algebra,” which meant al jeer e al makable, or “restoration and reduction.”  Al-jrbr in itself a medical Arabic term meaning may “Allah guide me through the unknown,”  a medical technique used to restore broken bones.  Of course, I am quite aware that during a test students will often pray to be guided through their unknown problems too!

Harry Potter was told to board his train at track 9 3/4.  Alice deals with the Mad Hatter’s hat size of 10/6.  Actually, 10/6 was not the hat size but the cost for the hat.  It stood for ten shillings and sixpence, which interesting enough in late 19th Century England was equal to £300.96 pounds.  You would have to be quite mad to pay that amount for a hat.  The symbols and math continue to move along throughout the whole story.

Could physics problems be explained easier with a story?  How about calculus?  I believe, if you really know your subject well, you can tell it in a visual story.  Consider it the next time you have a student to tutor, or a difficult concept you must present the class.  If you have told a story would you consider sharing it with me?