Storytelling in Mathematics: The Emergent and Hopeful Theme in 2021
Both Amy Alznauer and Edmund Harriss hold advanced math degrees and teach at the university level. Amy teaches number theory and calculus at Northwestern and Edmund teaches calculus, foundations, and math history.
Amy’s other main interest/talent spills over to creative writing. She has M.F.A in the subject, and has written many essays and poems that have been published. She also has a fascination with Kolams, an art form done predominately by the women of Sri Lanka.
The aesthetic of symmetry and design is also a passion of Edmund. So much so, that he has authored two coloring books with Alex Bellos, and is creator of the 3D puzzle, Curvahedra, a seemingly natural confluence of his interest in geometry, patterns, and tilings.
At the time of writing this article, Amy and Edmund had not been introduced to each other, but their passion for communicating the beauty of mathematics through the most emotive and illustrative means — storytelling and visual patterning — is highly evident. And, in the span of just a year, both have released children’s books. While both teach complex mathematics to university students, they have also both decided to create the most accessible and critical outreach for the learning of mathematics — storytelling for young children.
I asked Edmund why he decided to write his book. This was the response he emailed me.
I am a true believer in the beauty of mathematics, but for many that is hidden behind an esoteric symbolism and bad memories of school. People even talk about “making mathematics fun” rather than just showing that mathematics itself can be fun. There is also a feeling that play and joy in mathematics only come after mastery. To challenge that I wanted to take on the simplest of mathematical acts; counting. Yet even in counting we try to add to the mathematics, building everything within a context. This book was the result of a personal challenge, to show the beauty, joy, and play of mathematics, using only mathematical ideas. To make a story of the numbers that did not need to have anything other than the numbers themselves, and their relationships. Which of course hints at the mathematics that follows counting ,while also inviting the earliest learners of mathematics to take ownership and find what they can do with it.
Reflecting on that answer, it only makes sense that any book that weaves in that human and humbling ethos of math’s awe and wonder could only have been written at the most basic level — counting.
Amy’s trajectory to her penning The Boy Who Dreamed of Infinity is wonderfully complex. Her father is George Andrews. He is the person that found Ramanujan’s Lost Notebook in Trinity College in 1976. While Amy was only 5 years-old at the time, that whole event and moment in time became a seed of curiosity and wonder of everything Srinivasa Ramanujan.
That over 40 year fascination with one of the greatest mathematicians that ever lived — most of The Lost Notebook was done while Ramanujan was on his deathbed — culminated in writing a dreamy and imaginative ode to both Ramanujan’s life and Amy’s journey through it. The fruits of that have been recognized, and her book has been shortlisted for a prestigious book prize for 2021.
And while Amy’s book is geared to the youngest readers, the purpose of the book is create portals to other books and other imaginative ideas about mathematics. Specifically, she shared the types of questions that could flow out:
Books from Amy Alznauer and Edmund Harriss signal that the reimagining of math education not only starts right at the beginning, but with imagination itself. Stories that invite all learners, with still burgeoning identities, to fully participate in the conversations and questions that symbolically define being a mathematician.
However, there is another reason that I used the word emergent and hopeful in the title of this article…
Amy, who I didn’t know at the time, contacted me on Twitter.
We have now been talking regularly for the last few months, and will have some very exciting news to share on the Conference front shortly! The hope is to bring the world of storytelling/children’s literature/publishing and mathematics/math education together, creating a more inclusive and expansive prism of what exploring and experiencing mathematics looks like.
For now, I cannot recommend enough the two beautiful and brilliant books by these deeply creative and reflective mathematicians.
The future of mathematics education is in the throes of rehumanization. There is nothing more human, pervasive, and powerful than connecting our students with the power of story.