April 06, 2006

Anthropomorphic Melodrama

Jessica, almost six, is currently struggling with "greater than," "less than," and "equals."

A number line runs the length of our kitchen ceiling. Block towers of different heights form a miniature metropolis on our table. Trains with different numbers of cars provide mass-transit. We divide and count our peas at supper. We haven't actually built a balance scale yet, but I'm planning one!

It's possible that Jessica's just not ready for this: that some uncrossed threshold of cognitive development precludes her comparing quantities in her head.

But do we give up?

This morning when Camille and Jessica started comparing quantities, Jessica, again, glazed over, became distracted, and answered at random, scrutinizing Camille's face for hints without actually thinking about the problems.

Then, out of the blue and on her own, Jessica forged a new path towards understanding: "Are the big numbers proud of how big they are?"

Camille calls this the "anthropomorphic melodrama" approach to pedagogy. Numbers have feelings, just like people, so any math problem has the potential to become a soap opera. We try not to turn all of Jessica's lessons into emotional allegories, really. But this time, desperate for a new approach, Camille ran with it.

"Yes, the big numbers are very proud that they're so big. They're the ones over here."

"And the little numbers are sad? Because they want to be big, too?" Jessica pointed to the left end of the number line.

"That's right, the little ones are sad."

Shamelessly, I pitched in. "Sometimes the big ones can be mean, and they tease the little ones."

"We're big [pointing to the right], and you're not [pointing to the left]," Jessica said, tormenting the little numbers in her pretend voice.

"Oh, no," Camille said. "The little ones are starting to cry."

Were we teaching math? Teaching gender stereotypes? (Nathaniel's numbers don't cry, after all). Both?

I don't know. . . . but she was starting to get it!

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