Curricular Connections for Teachers


In 1994 my literary agent suggested that I consider writing math books for children because I have a degree in mathematics and I worked for nearly twenty years as a computer programmer.  I read many of the recent children's math books and was struck by the fact that not much was written about how scientists use math in their work.


What I needed was a context for the math that would be interesting to elementary school children.  I thought of the Denver Zoo.  When Klondike and Snow were born in November 1994, I got to know Cindy Bickel, a veterinary technician at the zoo.  She told me she used math all the time in her work and that she'd like to help me.  Because the zoo decided to publish their own book about the polar bears, Cindy suggested that I write about T.J., a baby Siberian tiger born in 1993.  T.J.'s mother had died of cancer when the cub was 10 weeks old, so the baby tiger had to be hand-raised in the zoo nursery.


The tiger cub was underweight, because his mother had been so sick, and then he refused to eat at the zoo hospital.  For many weeks, the veterinary staff used graphs to compare T.J.'s weight to his father's weight at the same age, so that they could see when T.J. was back on track.


I was excited when I heard T.J.'s story, because I knew it would be great for showing kids how to use graphs.  I wanted to tackle the concept of graphing first, because my daughter had struggled with graphs in school.  While I worked on the book about T.J., I talked with several teachers to find out how they taught graphing.  A class of third graders looked at an early draft of the math and told me what was hard for them to understand.  Many teachers looked at later drafts of the book to ensure that the math was at the right level for a third- or fourth-grade student. 


Six years later, after I had revised the math at least 12 times, Tiger Math: Learning to Graph from a Baby Tiger  was finally published.  The book introduces four different kinds of graphs--picture graphs, circle graphs, bar graphs, and line graphs--and shows how graphs can tell a story just like words can.


One librarian told me she has several copies of Tiger Math in the school library, and they're always checked out.  Several children have told me they want to be veterinarians after reading about T.J.  One student wrote, "When I grow up, I will work in a zoo.  You can come and I will help you write a book."


My publisher was eager to have me continue the math series after Tiger Math was selected as an NSTA-CBC Outstanding Science Trade Book, an IRA Teacher's Choice, and won a Colorado Book Award.  Next in the series is Chimp Math: Learning About Time from a Baby Chimpanzee which tells the story of Jiggs, a small, scrawny chimpanzee whose mother ignored him.  This book uses time lines, time logs, clocks, and calendars to tell about Jiggs's first 16 months of life.


Time lines in the book show a century (important dates for chimps in the twentieth century), a 24-hour day (how often Jiggs was fed), a year (milestones during the first year of Jiggs's life), and finally the decades of a chimp's life (they can live more than five decades in a zoo).  This book could serve as a springboard to a study of all the great apes (chimps and gorillas in Africa and orangutans in Indonesia), a study of Jane Goodall, who began her work with chimps in Tanzania in 1960, or a classroom project using time lines.


Long before I started writing math books, I wrote fiction stories for children.  Dear Whiskers was inspired by one of my daughter's school projects.  When she was in fifth grade, the students in her class wrote letters to second-graders pretending they were mice.  In Dear Whiskers, every fourth grader is writing letters to a second-grader in mouse persona.  Jenny has trouble thinking of much to say.  When she fails to get a letter back from her pen pal, she is angry and embarrassed.  Soon she discovers the reason for her pen pal's silence--Sameera has recently come to this country from Saudi Arabia and she doesn't speak much English.


Dear Whiskers has been an inspiration at several schools for letter-writing activities.  Recently, a teacher friend had her third-graders write letters to students in the first grade.  Another teacher friend has a mouse unit for her fourth grade class.  In addition to Dear Whiskers, they read Stuart Little, A Cricket in Times Square, The School Mouse, Martin's Mice, Abel's Island, and Ben and Me.  As an introduction to the mouse unit, students make mouse bookmarks out of fake fur.  As a science activity, they study the life cycle of a mouse.


Meow Means Mischief is a companion book to Dear Whiskers, but this time the main character is a new student named Rana and the class activity is journal writing.  Rana is a racially-mixed child, whose grandparents from India have just arrived for a visit.  When a scraggly kitten comes meowing at the door, Rana's mother says they have no time to care for a new pet. But Grandpa puts in a good word for the cat, so Mom says it can stay for a while.  Rana hopes a while will turn into forever, but the kitten keeps getting into mischief.


Meow Means Mischief deals with the issue of being different, an issue my own children faced, because they are racially mixed.  My husband is Indian, while my ancestors are from Ireland and Wales.  We also had a scraggly, mischievous kitten come to our door, so all the cat incidents in the book came from our experiences with our cat, Tigger.  This book touches on Indian puppetry, food, clothing and attitudes about animals, which could stimulate discussion of another culture and the ways people are different, yet fundamentally the same. 


There is a global component to all four books I have mentioned in this article: the endangered animals from Asia and Africa, and people from Saudi Arabia and India, which further verifies and enriches the curriculum.