If you're thinking that comics and graphic novels are only for the English or Social Studies classroom, think again. One of the best graphic novels you can get your hands on is actually about the history of mathematics. In Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth, Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papdimitriou examine the life of Bertrand Russell as well as some of the most important and influential mathematicians and thinkers of the 20th century.
The book isn't only about Russell's life as a mathematician and pacifist, however, but of the group of artists and illustrators trying to put it all together, and so the narrative switches back and forth between the actual present, the present of the narrative, and the recollections of Russell's own past, including his work with Alfred North Whitehead on Principia Mathematica.
Of special interest to math educators will no doubt be the part of the story when Russell's attempts to establish a progressive school for young people that does not subscribe to traditional models. Needless to say, things go horribly awry when the students realize that they are not bound by traditional rules!
The book was #1 on the New York Times bestseller list for Graphic Novels and received widespread critical praise. Although it plays fast and loose with historical accuracy at times, it is thoroughly engaging, and a great way to show students how the math they are studying didn't just fall out of the sky one day. It came from the likes of the mathematicians and thinkers shown below!
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I know in the mathematics classroom that we're ever-more conscious about allowing students to find their way to the answers to problems. Gone, I hope, are the days of forcing students to take a single road along their journey through our mathematics curriculum.
I was never big on taking that road myself. When asked to solve a math problem, I always wanted the solution to look cool for some reason. I think this had to do with my formative reading experiences being so tied to comics, detective fiction, adventure stories, and the manuals and gamebooks of fantasy role-playing games. I wanted the journey to be exciting!
A few years back, I was teaching at a school that held a math contest for students and faculty. I found the questions really challenging, and that's with ten undergraduate math courses under my belt!
I managed to win the contest (which I think my colleagues found strange given that I taught in the English department), but the way I answered the questions had something to do with it: Here were my responses, and I apologize in advance for having no longer any clue what the questions were...
Q1. Killer Geometry Question
Q2. Fractals -- It was brutal
Q3. Hypocycloid Question (I nearly died)
Q4. I honestly don't even remember this one...
I think when we allow our students to draw their math answers, write out their frustrations about their math answers, and use visual brainstorming techniques for their math answers, we're giving them opportunities to arrive at these answers in very useful ways. If you encourage visual brainstorming or having kids use doodling in their written responses to questions, send along some examples because we'd love to feature them at Comics in Education!
Dr. Glen Downey is an award-winning children's author, educator, and academic from Oakville, Ontario. He works as a children's writer for Rubicon Publishing, a reviewer for PW Comics World, an editor for the Sequart Organization, and serves as the Chair of English and Drama at The York School in Toronto.
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