Mathematics and reading are sometimes viewed as opposite concepts that can exist without impairing the functionality of the other. In the classroom students are content to just read or just do math, but when you combine them using the dreaded word problem, students react as if they have been kicked by a horse. Reading a math textbook is a much different skill than reading just about any other kind of book. Math textbooks rely on the premise that you need to grasp and apply the concept before you turn the page because you will be building on the concept that you just read. Oftentimes students choose not to even pick up the textbook because not only is it not written like a novel but it requires effort to understand what is going to be on the following page. There is no escapism. Many of the books written about math lead the reader down a path that becomes a black hole, discussing concepts that make even math aficionados cross their eyes.
What is the solution? We cannot discuss math without having some application to the real-world which requires the use of the word problem. No matter the carrot most students will not pick up the math textbook. Can we make the math useful and fun? Yes! We can begin by bringing the math home to the student by using stuff they are already familiar with in pop culture, in the news, or relating to something they find interesting. I always begin my lesson in College Algebra dealing with parabolic shapes by bringing in an article about people being burned and items catching on fire on the sidewalk outside a popular casino on the Vegas Strip. We discuss the death ray and why it is happening. It usually elicits much interest in how this could happen to someone who spent millions of dollars designing and building a casino. Do the student enjoy movies or popular fiction like The Hunger Games? Most of my students do so I bring in another article to discuss probability and decision making behind such concepts as should you consider entering your children’s name into the lottery in exchange for more food?
While these examples are great for the classroom, how do we encourage students to read outside of the classroom? One such way is to post student work. I was amazed at the commentary I have overheard while passing students in the hallway outside the math classrooms where we post our statistics students’ projects. They are reading them!! Once when I was reorganizing one of the boards a student stopped me to ask where they can learn about what they were reading. Students would also discuss the projects posted such as how many umbrellas would it take to cover Seattle, whether views on nursing in public is generational, and views on organ donation. Intermingled with the projects are short articles about scientific advances using mathematics such as the math behind finding fake photos in popular magazines, predicting climate, and finding friends on Facebook.
When you post colorful student projects mingled with articles the passerby is much more likely to stop and read. By changing out the projects and articles regularly the students look forward to the new additions. We even started a puzzle section on a dry erase board with a brainteaser type of problem and the responses to this was overwhelmingly positive. Students can try their hand at the puzzle and their creativity is infectious where students compete to come up with the cleverest answer even if it isn’t correct. In short, if you post it they will come… and read it!