Learning math — and how to teach it — could be more fun and effective, thanks to a Columbus State University professor and a CSU student.
Math education professor Cindy Ticknor and junior art major Nathan Long collaborated to create a math-themed comic book, “The Mysterious I.D. Vide in Newton’s Nemesis,” which is designed to help students learn about fractions.
That’s because one of Ticknor’s toughest challenges has been helping the aspiring math teachers in her classroom instruct their future students to calculate math problems with fractions, she said.
In 2015, while teaching a summer semester course at CSU’s Spencer House in Oxford, England, Ticknor was at a bookstore and found an inspiring graphic novel, “Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth,” about mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell.
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Then in 2016, during a beach vacation with their extended family, their 10-year-old cousin got sunburned and had to miss the fun in the sun. Ticknor’s husband, Kirk, an avid comic book collector, gave him one of his superhero issues as consolation.
“He just read that comic book over and over again,” Ticknor said. And she thought, “That’s a perfect medium, if a kid’s going to read a comic book over and over again.”
So, on that vacation, she started writing her math-themed comic book. Ticknor, who also is dean of CSU’s Honors College, sprinkled into her story Common Core Standards for fifth-grade math, when students are introduced to fractions.
With her script finished in January of this year, she needed an artist to make her story visually appealing. She asked art professors Hannah Israel and Orion Wertz — and they suggested the same student.
Ticknor gave Long the script, which included a description of what she wanted the characters to look like and what they should do and say in each panel.
Long had self-published his own comic book, but this was his first one drawing for someone else.
“When I read the script, I just fell in love with the concept, the target audience and then I.D. Vide, who is the main character,” said Long, a graduate of Houston County High School. “I completely went gaga, because I really enjoy making artwork geared toward children, and I had my own experiences with math. . . . I never had anyone explain to me the rules of math, that there are these logical rules that you can think through to solve problems.”
The first time Ticknor saw Long’s artwork depicting her story, “I just teared up. . . . I just love his art.”
Besides getting paid for this project, Long sees it as a service that addresses a comprehension gap in math.
“We’re so focused on test scores and pushing them up to the next grade that there’s kind of a ‘We just want you to be able to regurgitate this,’” Long said. “So we don’t actually know why we do what we do in math, and there are these really simple explanations in the books, like quarters of a basketball game. So it really puts it into terms of real-life application.”
The story is set in the fictitious town of Banneker, named after Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806), one of America’s first black mathematicians.
One of the lead characters, fifth-grader Theo, is half black and half Latino.
“I wanted to make sure that it’s appealing to all students, especially students of color,” said Ticknor, who is from Modesto, Calif., earned her doctorate from Auburn University and has been teaching at CSU for 15 years.
Theo gets a job watching a neighbor’s puppy, Newton. That house is next door to the mysterious Ms. Irene Deirdre Vide, whose initials form the pun I.D. Vide. She has a black cat named Pythagorus.
Theo’s friends tell him that they saw Ms. Vide dancing around in the moonlight. They think she might be a witch.
One day, while Theo struggles to do his math homework, which involves fractions, he hears Vide, who loves math, doing a rap about fractions. Trying to decide whether to seek help from her, Theo is torn between his fear of her possibly being a witch and his fear of continuing to do poorly in math.
The story ends in a cliffhanger. Ticknor and Long hope this will be the first of a three-part series.
The main message, Ticknor said, is that “a fraction is just a little division problem.” Games, puzzles and worksheets accompany the 20-page comic book, which also includes a little math history and geometry.
“I wanted to figure out a better way to communicate with children about fraction operations and why you do the things you do,” Ticknor said. “If we can teach them that, they can really excel later on in mathematics.”
Research shows pivotal points in a child’s education, when they think they’re “good at math” but “stumble when it comes to fractions,” Ticknor said. “All of a sudden you feel like you’re not good at math anymore. . . . If we can promote students to understand that it’s not a fixed mind that makes you good or not good at math but how much you’re interested in working at it, and when you encounter a problem and you struggle with it, your brain is actually growing and you’re actually learning.”
Ticknor explained the comic book’s title this way:
“One of the reasons children struggle with the algorithms to divide fractions is because they don’t connect it with why ‘invert and multiply’ works,” she said. “The ‘why’ is based on how we understand division. So, it made sense to have the main character someone who could teach about division, and I played with the name ‘Dee Vide’ first.
“I later decided to be a bit more subtle and make her ‘Irene Deirdre Vide,’ which could be shortened to I. Dee Vide or I.D. Vide. Fun, right?
“Newton’s named after Isaac Newton, one of the two mathematicians who invented/discovered calculus.”
Long described their comic book as “‘Magic School Bus’ meets ‘Scooby Doo,’ because there’s this mystery with this dog and it’s educational.”
After seeing the first of the 25 copies from their self-published printing in October, Ticknor said, “It’s just so satisfying to have it.”
Long said, “There’s something so gratifying about being the audience. It’s like the work is in the past and now you actually get to enjoy kind of like the fruit of your labor. So it’s this real like, ‘Oh, wow! I did that!’”
Then the question became, Ticknor said, “Hey, I love it, he loves it, but are the kids going to be able to?”
She shared copies with friends, who had their children or their friends’ children read the comic book. Ticknor and Long used that feedback to tweak their work.
A fellow faculty member told Ticknor that he gave his grandson a copy and said, “I think he likes it because he read it five times in a row.”
Now, the project is in beta testing, with 250 copies. Fifth-grade math teachers at Clubview, Forrest Road and Johnson elementary schools will use the comic books, along with a curriculum guide, to teach their students fractions. Those schools were recommended to Ticknor by Sue Teat, K-5 math content specialist for the Muscogee County School District.
After she collects the critiques from the teachers and students, Long will add color to the illustrations and they will finalize the comic book.
Asked whether she wants to sell the comic book to a professional publisher, Ticknor said, “The goal is to help children learn math, so I’m going to get it out there and see if it works. If it works, I’ll cross that road when I get to it.”
She will know whether it works, Ticknor said, based on comments from the teachers in this beta testing.
“I really respect the teachers’ expertise,” she said. “If they say it’s useful and motivational, then I can move forward with the project. Doing research won’t happen until the full series is finished.”
After all, she added, “It’s a little difficult for me because I’m a math person; I’m not a creative person necessarily, so this is a stretch for me.”
Long recognized the irony in Ticknor’s self-assessment.
“Theo goes through this journey in the book about ‘I’m not any good at math but I really am trying,’ and he learns that he can do it,” Long said.
Then, addressing Ticknor, he added, “At the same time, when you were writing this, at the beginning it was so difficult. … You’ve been told when you’re a math person, ‘I’m not a writer; I’m not artsy,’ because every math teacher says they can’t draw and they can’t do the poetry or they can’t write. You just internalized that as well.
“So when you actually finish a script that’s actually a good script, like an amazing script, it’s so vulnerable. It’s so deeply you. That’s an extension of yourself. Then to hand that to me, just, ‘Here you go. I have trust, I have faith, in you,’ and then I take that, and you see it come to life based on your vision – so beautiful.”
To learn more about the comic book, visit the website cindyticknor.com/novel.
Mark Rice, 706-576-6272, @MarkRiceLE.