Mathematical Meaning in Context

Article excerpt

The thousand paper cranes that had been hanging from light fixtures in our Baton Rouge, Louisiana, classroom flew to Japan as a symbol of peace. The peace package resulted from a team-teaching effort involving origami, children's literature, Japanese culture, and a focus on social issues. Two fourth-grade teachers originally conceptualized the unit as a means to connect children's literature, the study of Japanese culture, and simple geometry concepts. The differences, however, between those early ideas and the ways that they actually played out in the classroom were surprising. An unanticipated breadth of mathematical topics arose during the processes of classroom discussion and paper folding.

The newness of the project prompted us to be flexible about our planned objectives. We decided to let the children's reactions and questions guide the flow of the mathematics content. The strategy worked. Mathematical concepts ultimately extended far beyond what we would ever have planned; they included place value, the meanings of subtraction and multiplication, and the use of geometric terms as a means of communication. Even more noteworthy, the students' ideas played an equal role with ours in developing the unit's content.

A local tragic incident was the catalyst for incorporating social and cultural issues. The motivating event happened in Baton Rouge on 17 October 1992: Yoshi Hattori, a foreign-exchange student from Japan, was shot and killed when he was mistaken for an intruder while on his way to a Halloween party. The fourth-grade students at Magnolia Woods Elementary School in Baton Rouge felt a need to take action because of this tragedy. The unit ended as a memorial. "We made the paper cranes to send to Japan because Yoshi Hattori died here," reported Kristy, one of the students. She added, "We're doing it in his memory" (Dunne 1994, 1).

Planning the Thematic Unit

Planning revolved around both the students' awareness of this incident and a children's literature book, Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes (Coerr 1977). Initially, the mathematics teacher's decision to use origami to teach geometry inspired the language arts teacher to develop curricular concepts from the book. Brainstorming led to student activities, including student reports on Japan that were researched in social studies class and written and edited in language arts class. These activities evolved into student-authored and student-illustrated "books" on Japan.

The school was organized so that fifty-three of the fourth-grade students were shared between two teachers and switched classrooms after lunch. Sara Platte taught mathematics, science, and social studies, while Julie Van Zandt taught language arts, including reading, written composition, spelling, and English. The unit was developed as the teachers shared their ideas during planning periods and before and after school. One person's idea inspired others that were picked up and woven into a thematic unit. Further connections emerged from discussions with the children as the unit progressed.

The collaborators wanted the curriculum to flow together throughout the day so that all subject areas would be connected and enriched. The focus would be on geometric topics developed through origami and on literature studies, but research skills and social consciousness would also be emphasized. A science segment on Japan incorporated information about landforms, rocks, and volcanoes. Because Yoshi Hattori was from Japan, the social studies component dealt with Japanese culture as well as issues in our own culture - gun control, the right to bear arms, and living with the everyday fear of street crime. In language arts, the book Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes became the focus of discussion.

Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes

The children's book Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes (Coerr 1977) is a true story about a Japanese schoolgirl, Sadako. …