In Defense of Short Stories

Saw this tweet from  Kate Nowak presentation today:

When I saw the tweet I thought that it would be fun to take the other side this argument.  As the day went on, though, that thought changed to I want to take the other side of that argument.

I’ll begin with one of my favorite – and short! – math stories:

Julie Rehmeyer’s “Inspired by Math” interview

What’s always stuck with me from this interview is the story that begins around 31:30 and in particular the part beginning around 34:40 about proving that 0 + 0 = 0.

What I find so wonderful about Juile’s story is that you just never know what’s going to stick out from your own math education, and you certainly never know what is going to suddenly inspire a student at the time.

For me, the main source of math inspiration was Mr. Waterman’s Enrichment math class at my high school. This class was nothing but short stories for 3 years. For the most part you had no idea whatsoever ahead of time what we’d be talking about during that class. It sure taught me to love math, though.

A book I received as a prize in that class – essentially a collection of short stories – was my first introduction to math beyond school and contest math. I couldn’t wait to learn more about subject like abstract algebra and game theory after reading it:

My teaching style was heavily influenced by how Mr. Waterman taught, and though I’ve never really thought of it in these terms before that style is surely more “short story” than “coherent novel.”

Even with the stuff I do with my kids now, I’m happy to use, and super duper happy to have the opportunity to be inspired by, material shared by:

Fawn Nguyen

Patrick Honner

Dan Anderson

Kate Nowak

Stephen Strogatz

Numberphile

and on and on and on . . . .

I don’t view these ideas as great for my kids because they are coordinated, or connected in any special way – other than that they allow me to show really beautiful math to the kids.

One short story that I really look forward to sharing with them is Chapter 8 from Art of Problem Solving’s Precalculus book.

That chapter covers the geometry of complex numbers in a way that is so beautiful that I actually wrote to the author to thank him for writing that chapter. Just a beautiful little short story 🙂

So, don’t sell the short story short! You never know what’s going to grab a kid’s attention 🙂

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Comments

One Comment so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Well, I don’t think Heather knows very much about short stories, short story collections, or novels. I read that and cringed the way I normally do when schoolteachers who *really know much less than they think they do* about lit start pronouncing about it. Thanks very much for the recommendations, though. As always.

    (Seriously, I’m going to have to go distract myself after that one so I don’t just send her a long, long yelling-at about the pointlessness of comparing short stories and novels, and how coherent short-story collections tend to be, what with the involvement of writers and editors.

    My guess actually is that she has in mind whatever anthology she had to buy for an English lit class at some point. If you don’t know enough about the history of English lit to understand the TOC, and you don’t care enough about stories and poems and essays to read the whole book, rather than just the assignments, then yes, it’ll seem incoherent.

    (I know that’s not really what you were writing about, but right now I don’t care.)

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