[#113texts] Mentor Text Submission–Thinking in Numbers by Daniel Tammet

For my first #113texts Mentor Text Challenge post, I am going out on a limb, out of the box, out of… something. This isn’t a typical mentor text for me, nor is this a typical mentor text post. But then again, the #113texts Mentor Text Challenge isn’t typical either, now is it?

Caveat: I am not currently teaching in a classroom, and haven’t had a chance to use this text with more than a group of two. Typically, for this challenge, I’d suggest sharing a text you’ve used and including student work. I’ll share some of those, too. 

I discovered this book while roaming around a large bookstore-that-shall-not-be-named. In fact, I knocked a pile of these books off of a table and ended up carrying one around the store with me for a bit. I ended up leaving it there and getting the e-book edition at home, but taking it for a walk in the store was enough to set my pea brain to thinking. That, and I remember my dear SI Fellow-WRG-group-member Cynthia asking specifically for texts that could be used in the upper grades. And Mindy who helps us all remember the importance of math as we learn in SDAWP. Hey Cynthia and Mindy–how about this one?  And Kim, didn’t you mention a book like this, or even this exact one? Why didn’t I read it right then?

Enough fanfare, let me begin…

I have an unreasonable fear of math. It strikes me as a kind of magic that some people can do and that I cannot. Or a language similar to that of the Swedish chef on the Muppets.

I want to speak the language, do the magic, and I might be able to with the right teaching, but as of right now my brain still shuts right down when math approaches. Any math. Even addition.

This book is written by someone that speaks the language of math, but in a format that I can access–words. As we continue to explore the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in ELA and Math, we will be looking for texts that provide complexity, opportunities for deep reading, opportunities to take learning across more than one text, and that allow for students to do more than give us one single right answer. We are also asking teachers across the content areas to focus on reading, writing, speaking, and listening. I say, let’s also thread the content areas into each other and into our ELA classes. Enter… Thinking In Numbers: On Life, Love, Meaning, and Math by Daniel Tammet.

Just look at the Table of Contents and consider the possibilities:

  • Family Values
  • Eternity in an Hour
  • Counting to Four in Icelandic
  • Proverbs and Times Tables
  • Shapes of Speech
  • On Big Numbers
  • The Novelists Calculus
  • Selves and Statistics

I spent some time with one chapter in particular–Chapter Four: Proverbs and Times Tables.I was thinking in terms of the possibility of using this with younger students as they learn multiplication and with older students who may be struggling with number sense or math concepts.  Don’t get me wrong, this text is complex and will be a challenge for may grade levels, but rather than look at  what we can’t do with it, let’s look at what we can do. Try these excerpts from Chapter Four on for size:
Narrative Non-Fiction:
“I once had the pleasure of discovering a book wholly dedicated to the art of proverbs. It was in one of the municipal libraries that I frequented as a teenager. The title of the book escapes me now, the name of its author too, but I still recall the little shiver of excitement I felt as my fingers caressed its quarto pages. ” 
“One hundred proverbs, give or take, sum up the essence of a culture; one hundred multiplication facts compose the tens times tables. Like proverbs, these numerical truths or statements–two times two is four, or seven times six equals forty-two–are always short, fixed and pithy. Why then do they not stick in our heads as proverbs do?
“But they did before, some people claim. When? In the good old days, or course. Today’s children, they suggest, are simply too slack-brained to learn correctly. Nothing interests them but sending one another text messages and harassing the teacher. The critics hark back to those days before computers and calculators; to the time when every number was drummed into children’s heads til finding the right answer became second nature.”
These three short excerpts could provide opportunities for close reading for many grade level–as young as third grade, I’d say. Yes, there are some structures that are difficult, some vocabulary they may not know. Perfect, right? And each excerpt above, from each CCSS text type, is rich in discussion and writing opportunities–discussion centered around proverbs, learning, math, and perception. 

Let’s go a step further and examine an excerpt where Tammet discusses math as the essence of knowledge:

‘The facts in a multiplication table represent the essence of our knowledge of numbers: the molecules of math. They tell us how many dimes make up a dollar (10 x 10), the number of squares on a chessboard (8 x 8), the quantity of individual surfaces on a trio of boxes (3 x 6). They help us divide fifty-six items among eight people (7 x 8 = 56, therefore 56/8 = 7), or realize that forty-three of something cannot be evenly distributed in the same way (because forty-three, being a prime number, makes no appearance among the facts).”
Let’s just pull out the math vocabulary in this short paragraph: square, quantity, surface, trio, divide, evenly, distributed, prime number. Are one or more of these vocabulary words found in your grade level curriculum? I think, perhaps, yes. 
After a close reading of this text, imagine the discussion opportunities! Imagine a classroom full of eager elementary school students–eager to make those odd and personal connections to each topic we introduce.  Where could they take these concepts? Either in isolation (proverbs and then multiplication tables) or together (learning proverbs vs. learning multiplication tables), this discussion could really go somewhere. Our kiddos wouldn’t leave the discussion with a correct answer, but would their brains be buzzing?  Would they be buzzing about things we want them to buzz about?
How about in a high school English class? The CCSS demands that content area teachers incorporate reading, writing, speaking, listening into their lessons.  What if an upper level English class incorporated some math? What would happen? 
All of this from just one chapter. A. Maze.Ing.
Here is a summary of this text for the #113texts challenge:

  • Title and Author

Thinking In Numbers: On Life, Love, Meaning, and Math by Daniel Tammet

  • Text Type and Genre


  • Approximate Reading Level and/or Appropriate Grades

Excerpts could be used for younger grades.  Chapters for high grades. 

  • The ways in which YOU have used the text successfully with as much detail as you can.

I have not yet used this text with students, which sort of breaks the rules. Anyone have some students I can borrow?

  • Some excerpts from the book that exemplify the writer’s craft or other writerly tools

See above

One thought on “[#113texts] Mentor Text Submission–Thinking in Numbers by Daniel Tammet

  1. Okay…so I see that this #113texts is going to cost me some $$ in books! I already want this book. The one I have is the New York Times Book of Mathematics, and it's good, but different based on your description. Thanks for getting us started. I'm off to my classroom tomorrow to find the book I want to recommend first. And I may be off to that bookstore chain to find Thinking in Numbers…

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