Confession: I See Numbers Differently. (And it’s not what you think.)

6 is an awesome number

I’ve shared about this little quirk I have on Facebook and to my friends and family, but this is the first time I’ve ever written it down. And I’ll admit it. I’m a little nervous. Either I’m going to come off looking like a total weirdo or like the adorable, kooky geek that I feel like. I’m hoping it’s the latter, but if it’s the first, please be kind.

Here goes.

I personify numbers.

You read that right. In my mind, the digits 1 through 9 not only have genders and personalities and ages — they have relationships. Yep, there’s a whole nursery book of stories going on in my head when numbers cross my mind. And, strangely enough, great kiddie lit didn’t put this idea in my head.

This phenomenon is called ordinal-linguistic personification. (It has a name!) And a definition: it is the automatic process of assigning personalities to sequential linguistic units–including letters, numbers, months, days and more. This is a subset of the larger condition called synesthesia, in which the senses, words, colors and other incongruous experiences all meld together. Someone with synesthesia might “taste” colors or see bright hues in letters.

Me? I have always known numbers to have personalities. Like for as long as I can remember.

Let me introduce you to the family:

0 is god-like. It has no gender but is recognized as the spiritual guide of all of the other numbers.

1 is male and very passive. He’s middle aged, perhaps the patriarch of the number family.

2 is female and extremely bossy. Married to 1, she is the matriarch of the number family.

3 is male and a loner. He’s somewhat angry, but he generally keeps to himself.

4 is female. She’s sweet and easy to get along with, but she will stand up for herself. Her brother is 3.

5 is female and bossy. She particularly likes to tell 4 what to do, but in a sisterly way.

6 is male and passive. He’s married to 4, who is head over heels in love with him.

7 is male and neutral. Like 3, he’s a bit of a loner, but he’s not angry.

8 is male and friendly. He’s particularly fond of 4 but in a brotherly sort of way.

9 is male and sneaky. He doesn’t get along with anyone but 3.

Multi-digit numbers, like 10 or 99, also have personalities, largely based on the personalities of the single digits. So 99 is super-duper sneaky, while 64 is a really trustworthy, happy number.

It took me years and years to admit that I see numbers this way. When I was in my 20s, my uncle fessed up that he does the same thing. That’s an interesting fact, because synesthesia runs in families and is passed down maternally. More women than men have this characteristic, and more lefties than righties. (I’m a righty, by the way, but my uncle is a lefty.)

I also do something like this with calendars. Months and weeks don’t have personalities, but the annual calendar has always followed a very distinct shape in my mind. It’s a wavy kind of oval–almost like the path on the Candy Land game board–made up of large blocks (months) divided into rows (weeks). At any given time of the year, I can immediately call to mind where we are on my visual calendar. This helps me estimate times and remember dates.

Clearly I’m a very visual thinker, eh?

So what does this have to do with math? I have no idea. This quirk doesn’t help me memorize strings of numbers — from telephone numbers to bank PINs — easily at all. And I’m guessing that it hasn’t been particularly helpful in learning some math facts, like multiplication tables. (Is that why I can’t remember that 6 • 7 = 42? Both 6 and 7 are male, but 4 and 2 are female. I don’t know why that doesn’t compute, but there you have it.)

But it has been a boon to my daydreaming. When I’m writing algebraic equations for a curriculum development assignment, the results might end up as little stories, simply based on the numbers I choose. Certainly this is where the math and writing has come together.

So how about you? In your mind, do numbers have personalities? If so, would you be willing to share about it? What do you think of how numbers look to me? Or do you see abstract ideas, like letters or dates, in some similar fashion? I’d really love to hear from you in the comment section. (Please assure me I’m not alone!)


My Most Embarrassing Professional Moments Have Involved Math

making mistakesThe first email came in at about 2:00 p.m.

600 million divided by 660,000 equals a little over 909.

The next a few moments later.

5.4 billion people is nearly the population of the whole World (estimated at 7 billion in 2012 by USCB)

“Well, shit,” I said aloud. It had happened again.

As part of my virtual book tour for Math for Writers, Linda Formichelli (the original Renegade Writer) had offered me a great chance to reach out to her readers, through her “Monday Motivation” email. I penned a piece called “4 Math Mistakes Writers Make—and How You Can Avoid Them.”

Unfortunately, there were 6 mistakes. Two of them were unintentionally made by little ol’ me. In the whirlwind of my virtual book tour, I had not edited carefully enough. I know what to do; I just didn’t take the time to do it.

Honestly, this is my worst nightmare. If anyone else in the world had made these mistakes, I’d easily reassure them: “Math isn’t life or death! We all make mistakes, and the world still spins. [Tweet this] The thing is to learn from our mistakes and move on.”

Easier said than done, apparently.

I don’t know where I got my math performance anxiety. Perhaps it stems from my strong sense of perfectionism in some areas of my life. I’ve had that trait since childhood, and I see it in my daughter. It’s why I prefer sewing to woodworking — with fabric and thread, I can pull apart mistakes and start again. Wood is not so forgiving.

Regardless, I must want to push through it. Why else would I choose two careers (teaching and writing about math) that put my math mistakes in the spotlight?

Want to share this image? Go right ahead! Just right click, save and share.

Want to share this image? Go right ahead! Just right click, save and share.

When I was a teacher, I had less of a problem with this issue. I told my students very plainly that I would make math errors. They were invited to correct me (nicely), and we would move on. (I had the same rule for spelling, which I really don’t care one whit about.) In the classroom, I saw my public mistakes as a teachable moment. Perfection is not required. Math is difficult, and we all screw up from time to time.

In regards to my most recent public math mistakes, I’m not worried that someone thinks that 600,000,000 ÷ 660,000 = 9 or that a reader went away from my article believing that there are 5.4 billion people in the U.S. I’m worried that these readers lost trust in my ability to teach them something about math. It’s what I tell other writers all the time: If you get the math wrong, your readers can lose faith in you.

But in the end I have to go back to my more gentle self. These mistakes happen — even to big wig mathematicians. (I’m not one of those, by the way.) If you made that mistake, I’d tell you not to worry about it. And in my line of work, I’d better get that message loud and clear. Because this is not the last public math mistake I’ll ever make. Not by a long shot.

When I worried out loud about this yesterday, a dear friend and colleague told me, “Whatever. People love to point out others’ mistakes.” And she is right. It’s not that anyone has been mean about it — none of Linda’s readers were at all. It’s about connecting. I don’t need to feel ashamed or worried. I’m pretty sure Einstein would laugh and tell me to forget about it, too.

Besides, I’m sure I’m not the only writer who is worried about making public math mistakes. Right?

Do you have fears about making math mistakes — in public or elsewhere? Help me feel better, by sharing your story. Please?

Hey, Does This Place Look Different?

New Math for Grownups

If you’re used to a completely different Math for Grownups website, hold up. You’re not in the wrong place. For the last two months (or more?), I’ve been working on a redesign of the site. I wanted something fun, punchy and energizing — kind of how I feel about math. And with my newest book, Math for Writers, hitting Amazon last month, this was a great opportunity.

And it’s not just a new book to celebrate! You’ll notice some really cool additions, plus a few old friends. Here’s a quick run down.

Sections for Writers, Parents, Teachers, and All Grownups

If you fall in one of these categories — and unless you’re a kid, you do! — you can zip right over to see the content I’ve developed just for you. Writers will find great ways to develop their craft and manage their writing. Parents will find tips for growing math-confident kids — without losing their minds. Teachers will find resources they can share with parents and students, including the answer to the age-old question: “When will I ever use this stuff?” At the same time, everyone can learn how math can help us make smarter financial decisions, save time and think about math in a completely different way.

OMG, Quizzes!

I can’t tell you how excited I am to introduce original, interactive quizzes. But before you freak out: There is no timer. There are no grades. No one has to know how you did. And that’s exactly how I wanted it. My goals are pretty simple: Show you what kids are learning at various grade levels, and give you a chance to see what you remember (or don’t). I’ll be adding quizzes over time — hopefully one a week or so. And I’ll add some non-math quizzes too, like “Are You REALLY Math Anxious?”

Coming Soon: Online Learning

If reading a blog or a book is not enough for you, I’m gearing up to offer some very targeted online learning. First up will be courses designed just for writers. Over time, I’ll add courses for parents and others. Through Facebook groups, webinars and “homework,” you’ll have a chance to take a deeper dive into the math that you need — but can’t quite grasp. These aren’t college courses, and you won’t be graded on your assignments. The idea is to give you a little special attention, so you can ask specific questions, gain some confidence and learn a few things. Stay tuned!

Math at Work Monday Is Back!

I know that this is a very popular feature on Math for Grownups, and I’ve got a whole series of great Math at Work Monday interviews lined up. You’ll meet recycling truck drivers and cancer radiology specialists. And if you have a suggestion of someone I should interview, send me a note. I’m always looking for fresh ideas!

Take a look around. Read my new Math for Grownups Manifesto. And let me know what you think. I’m really looking forward to injecting even more energy into math.

Oh, and if you haven’t received my free gift for you, don’t miss out. Just sign up in the bright yellow box to the right, and you’ll get a free copy of Multiply Your Math Moxie: A Painless Guide to Overcoming Math Anxiety. Get comfortable with math, once and for all.


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What Does “Hundreds” Mean?

Ask a Math TeacherWelcome to the first edition of Ask a Math Teacher, which will feature real, live math questions from real, live people. How often will I do this? As often as I can. What kinds of questions can you expect? Whatever people ask. If you have a question, please post it to the Math for Grownups Facebook page (after clicking “like” of course!) or email me at lelaing-at-gmail-com.

Today’s question comes from my friend and cookbook author, Debbie Koenig. You really should check out her blog and bookParents Need to Eat Too. Debbie posted this question on Facebook, which led to a two-day long post-a-thon. We finally got to the root of the question — and answer — and I thought you would like to hear about it.

My son’s math homework has me scratching my head–he’s supposed to “Draw a picture of 600 hundreds” in a space that’s maybe an inch and a half high. How does one draw 600 of anything in that small a space? And why is he drawing 600 of something? I have no idea how to help him. 

One thing that isn’t clear in this question is that her son is in second grade. This is a really important piece of information, because the answer is going to seem completely counter-intuitive to us grownups.

Some background: When children learn their numbers and then learn to count and then learn to write 3s, 7s and 4s (sometimes backwards), they are picking up teeny-tiny bits of number sense. When all of this information is put together, we call that numeracy. You can think of numeracy like literacy. It’s not just being able to count or add; it’s being able to understand how numbers work together in a much larger sense. As you can imagine, this is a big, hairy deal. It takes years and years to get to where we adults are. And most of us grownups take for granted the numeracy that we do have.

I say this because what this “hundreds” thing is getting at is place value, or the position of a digit in a number. Teachers can just tell students that the 4 in 9433 is in the tens place, or — and this is a much better idea — students can learn a great deal more about numbers by really exploring this concept.

You see, place value is not some random construct. There are reasons that the first place to the right of a decimal is the ones place and the fourth place to the right of the decimal is the thousands place. Exploring this can help kids get better at multiplying or dividing and lay the foundation for decimals and even percentages.

So with that said, the first thing to do is ignore what you think hundreds means. Unless you’ve had some experience in math education, you’re probably not going to take the right guess. In second-grade math class, hundreds does not mean one hundred. It means the hundreds place.

The easiest way to get into this is by looking at a hundreds chart.

Ask a Math Teacher

If you have one of these hundred charts, you have 100, right? How can you represent 600 then? I’ll give you a second to think about it…

Yep, with six of these buggers! Here’s a visual representation without the numbers:

Ask a Math Teacher

So what Debbie’s son was being asked to do was draw something like the above. It’s important because it has to do with place value. Only most second graders don’t have a clue about that stuff yet. And what they have learned so far sounds like a big mistake to the rest of us — because the language being used is not what we expect. He’ll learn the word “place value” in due time and forget about these hundreds tiles and charts and suchlike.

Asking students to draw “600 hundreds” is helping students visualize place value and other important concepts. Teachers call these manipulatives, especially because they’re often real objects that students can pick up and move around. But on a homework worksheet, they’re a little harder to translate, especially for a parent who went to elementary school more than a few years ago.

So that’s the story of “hundreds,” at least as far as a second grader is concerned. I’d love to hear your thoughts! Do you know of other ways to get to the basics of place value? Do you, personally, think of place value differently? Share in the comments section.

P.S. I’m going to be speaking to parents of elementary-aged kids at my daughter’s school later this month. If you have questions that you think I should address, feel free to shoot me a quick note or post on the Math For Grownups Facebook Page. And if your school — in the D.C.-Baltimore area — would like to have me come down for a Math Chat, let me know. I’d love to meet you!