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Momís Math Camp: Discovering Beauty in Numbers

by Nadine Dolby - November 30, 2018

In this commentary, the author reflects on what she has learned about math as an adult, through helping her daughter.

In the middle of my senior year, I fled high school to avoid calculus.

My junior year math teacher had insisted that I was ready for Calculus AB the following year. I had completed pre-calculus and trigonometry, and while I was not the best student in the class, neither was I the worst. I was ready. Or so he said.

September 1981, my senior year, came and school started. The first few weeks of Calculus AB passed and we quickly moved from review to new material. I floundered. While my classmates followed every differential equation, function, theorem, law, and rule, I was lost. By mid-October I realized that I would fail. While for years I had been dutifully plugging numbers into equations and comprehending just enough to get by with a B, the overarching theories, patterns, and frameworks of mathematics had eluded me. At core, I did not understand what I was doing. In a class of mathletes who dreamt in derivatives, I was sunk.

So I left not just the class, but high school. As much as I struggled in calculus, I was bored in my other classes: this was decades before schools routinely offered multiple AP courses and other options to earn college credit in high school. When my classmates returned to school in January of 1982 to begin their last semester of senior year, I was gone. I found a local university that would accept me early without a high school degree, and enrolled.

That first semester of college, I had classes in psychology, sociology, English literature, art history and European history, but no math. After completing the semester and finally receiving my high school degree, I transferred to another university with a stronger program in my major. At my new university, math courses were not required as part of my degree program. Instead I could substitute foreign languages courses, so I happily enrolled in multiple semesters of French. Finally, my struggles with math were behind me. I assumed that I would never have to think about it again.

My daughter’s problems with math started four years ago, in second grade. Math was hard: it required patience and focus. In contrast, reading and writing were easy for her: she read effortlessly and all the time, many years above her grade level. But then there was math, with its swarms of numbers, equations, and an entire world that made no sense. Math required discipline and order. To my creative daughter, who loves art, writing stories, and doing everything her own way, math’s endless rules chafed.

So the summer after second grade, we began working together at home. Every afternoon, after camp or the day’s activity was finished, “Mom’s math camp” would begin. In small chunks of 30 minutes a day, we reviewed all of second grade math and started to preview what was to come in third grade, so it would not be a surprise. Math surprises were overwhelming to my daughter and brought on tears of frustration.

In the beginning, the math was easy for me, of course, and repetitive. There is little challenge or pleasure in helping a third grader learn her times tables or how to do long division, just drudgery. But then we moved to word problems. My daughter had no interest in calculating how much Jill’s bananas cost if she purchased two pounds at 40 cents per pound. She tore through the word problems at top speed, with no concern for making charts, writing equations, or working through the steps. But suddenly, and surprisingly, I did. I began to see the patterns, the logics, and the rhythms that were buried in third grade math: what was invisible to me throughout my own schooling I could now see.

Third grade ended. “Mom’s math camp” started up again during the summer before 4th grade and continued through the months preceding 5th and 6th grade. My daughter still struggles with a way of thinking and being that is foreign to her, and she resists the careful rules and procedures that math requires. Only eleven and at the beginning of her life, she dislikes the constraints of the world, which for her are contained in math. But for me, at middle age, I can now see the beauty in following the rules, doing it carefully, not making small errors and mistakes along the way, and in the end, getting a correct answer. Now knowing the messiness, unpredictability, and chaos of the world, I am able to find a fleeting moment of peace in the certainty of the truths that are contained in the equations.

Quite accidentally, I had stumbled into an appreciation of math based on its aesthetics—its beauty. Sinclair (2006) in her book about aesthetics and math, discusses how this is an often-forgotten, overlooked, or deliberately ignored aspect of teaching math to children. As educators, we focus primarily on the utilitarian aspects of math: its usefulness in an increasingly technological society, and as an important tool of equity. Yet, we rarely teach math for its essence—for the pleasure of doing math. The beauty, elegance, and simplicity that is inherent in its practice was lost on me as a child and only discovered through my own child’s struggle. As Sinclair discusses, some scholars argue that it is impossible for a child to develop an aesthetic appreciation of math, that it can only come with age and maturity. But a child’s appreciation of a frog, a tree, a poem and a painting can be cultivated and fostered by trying to understand if and how the child finds beauty and pleasure in them. Likewise, while there are no guarantees, it is also possible to begin a child’s exploration of math in a similar fashion: not as something that must be learned to earn a degree or get a job, but as a human endeavor that is just as remarkable and pleasurable as painting, writing, making music, or other creative activities.

I probably will still never love math: I will easily sit down and read a book (many, many books) for pleasure, but I doubt I will spend my spare time solving equations. Yet, I now see math differently. Math is no longer just something that other people have, it is also mine (Chen, 2017). So, to my junior year math teacher: thank you for believing in me. More than three decades later, I am finally ready for Calculus AB.


Chen, R. (2017). Prospective elementary teachers’ aesthetic experience and relationships to mathematics. Journal of Mathematics Teacher Education, 20, 207–230.

Sinclair, N. (2006). Mathematics and Beauty: Aesthetic Approaches to Teaching Children. New York: Teachers College Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 30, 2018
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22586, Date Accessed: 5/25/2022 12:23:44 PM

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About the Author
  • Nadine Dolby
    Purdue University
    E-mail Author
    NADINE DOLBY is Professor of Education at Purdue University. Her research interests include empathy in education, animals in education, and the human-animal bond. Her most recent book is Rethinking Multicultural Education: The New Empathy and Social Justice (Routledge, 2012) and she has published in many leading educational journals, including Teachers College Record, Harvard Educational Review, Comparative Education Review, Review of Educational Research, and Educational Studies.
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