Book Review: The Absolute Value of Mike (and Dyscalculia)

Sunday, October 23rd, 2011


absolutemikeWhen I saw this book at the library, I was drawn directly to it. Why? For one thing, my post on dyscalculia and teaching math is one of my most popular posts ever. For another, I am always seeking good children’s books with mathematics themes to enhance my teaching or recommend to students. Finally, given that the theme of dyscalculia is such a hot topic, I thought I might be able to learn more about it, as I have done with books about people on the autistic spectrum, such as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

So it was with great eagerness that I devoured this book. And it is with mixed feelings that I write this review. Therefore, I thought it would be best to write it in two parts, the first about its literary value, and the second about its value in understanding what dyscalculia means.

Part 1: Literary Value
This book has a lot going for it. For one thing, the characters are all unique and unconventional. While some other reviewers have criticized them as being too strange, I liked them because such people do exist, and reading about characters like these portrayed in positive ways can help promote tolerance and understanding.

Another strength is the plot, which compelled me to keep reading. I found it gripping, moving, and believable in its own world. It was also well written, which is only to be expected from a National Book Award winner. I enjoyed the story tremendously.


Part 2: Representation of Dyscalculia
First of all, a disclaimer: I am not an expert in dyscalculia. I have done some reading, and I have worked in math for many years with a variety of students, some of whom struggle with math due to poor math teaching or different learning styles, and a few who genuinely could not work with numbers. Some had parents who hired me as a private tutor precisely because they had such a struggle with math.

That being said, I do understand some things about dyscalculia. I know that it can result in the inability to have number sense, to know how to do some calculations one day and forget the next, perhaps to have no sense of time or money, poor sense of direction, and/or not much working memory. You can read more about it in my entry titled “Dyscalculia and Teaching Math.

Therefore, I expected to see at least one of these struggles shown in the main character. Instead, Mike was able to multiply and divide large numbers in his head. For example, on p. 229:
Good luck getting twenty dollars in one week! Even I could do the math – that was almost three thousand a day.”
Mike was able to keep appointments on time, manipulated numbers in his head, and while he got lost in a new town a few times, who doesn’t? The inability to read maps does not necessarily imply dyscalculia, and he always managed to find his way in the end.

The central conflict of the story is Mike’s relationship with his father, who is a genius in the math and sciences, and who wants his son to succeed in these too. However, the father has a great deal of trouble empathizing, relating to his son, understanding people in general, and being able to converse outside of his own areas of expertise. In short, Erskine has done a beautiful job of characterizing a man with a recognizably typical autistic spectrum disorder, without ever naming it. Mike’s great-aunt Moo even describes oddities in the father’s childhood behavior to confirm to us that these strange behaviors aren’t only due to grief from Mike’s mother’s death, or some other lifetime trauma.

Rather than dyscalculia, Erskine has characterized a boy who can manage the basics of math, but for whom advanced math holds no interest or appeal. That is true for a much larger segment of the population than those with dyscalculia! If the character did have dyscalculia, I wish she would have done as excellent a job in showing it in the character as she did with the father’s autistic behaviors. Granted, dyscalculia isn’t as well understood or “popular,” but I really think the book would have benefitted from an expert’s review before publication. I think marketing it as a book that addresses the topic of dyscalculia is misleading and could lead to a lot of popular misdiagnosis or self diagnosis.

Recommended Resources:
Since I can’t recommend this book for learning about dyscalculia, here are a few resources I can recommend. Please add yours below in the comments. Also, if you disagree with my assessment, I would love to hear your point of view; I want to learn as much as I can about this topic.

My Thirteenth Winter: A Memoir

Dyscalculia and Teaching Math

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010


Imagine trying to pay for a doughnut and not knowing if a $10 bill is enough.

Imagine not knowing which is more, 5 or 4.

Imagine never having a sense of time, so you are always early or late for things. Or someone gives you an hour to complete a task, and you have no idea how long that is or how to pace yourself.

Imagine never being able to retain the difference between left and right.

Imagine being in high school and understanding the concepts of algebra, but being unable to do basic addition and subtraction, let alone the higher operations.

Imagine being gifted in many, many academic areas, but having such difficulty in these areas that you “average out” so your school system never qualifies you for either the gifted programs or the special needs support you so badly need.

Imagine taking a summer job cleaning hotel rooms and being repeatedly reprimanded because you can’t keep all the steps in your head, forgetting the towels one time, the soaps another, dusting the counters yet another time.

Imagine that most of your teachers don’t understand, say thoughtless and clueless things about your disability, and some even try to block you from getting the special services and supports that you need.

Imagine the stress and anxiety that comes from not understanding what is wrong with you, why you can’t get the simplest things that come to all your peers so easily.

13thwinterIf you take the time to imagine all this, you might get a glimpse of the feelings conveyed by Samantha Abeel in her memoir, My Thirteenth Winter. I just finished rereading it, because I wanted to remind myself about what it is like for a person with dyscalculia.

This disability, unlike dyslexia, is one that I had never been trained in during my teacher education, though current research suggests in might be related to dyslexia. I think it is one of the lesser-understood disabilities, at least by the general population. Reading this memoir helped me become a better and more sensitive teacher, but it also raises some questions: how best to support people with this disability? After all, it makes living a regular life very challenging, between having to handle money (a big one) to using directions to get somewhere (though GPS can help) to being able to manage your time.

I have thought about Singapore Math in relation to this. In a session with Dr. Yeap Ban Har this summer, he mentioned that being able to do mental math and compute with number sense should be able to be done by all students without calculators, but that those with disabilities who can understand the concepts but cannot compute should be able to use calculators.

Part of the answer might be to look at multiple intelligence theory and use the student’s own strengths. Samantha Abeel is very strong in her visual and literary abilities. For her, a program that teaches math facts through poems, stories, and/or pictures might have been helpful, as it would use different brain pathways to help her retain these facts. I also had some success making multiplication table music CDs with a couple of math classes, and they seemed to help my students with learning differences the most.

Another interesting project with some research to back it up is a software program for young children that incorporates a game to teach basic number sense. It is a Java-based game, so it starts up slowly on my computer, and it’s not super-polished or professional looking, but the pedagogy looks solid. The game is called The Number Race. The full published research article about its effectiveness is at this site. In summary, the students who used it had some improvement in kindergarten, but it did not hold over time. A one-shot deal is not good enough; they need repeated help and practice.

If you would like to add anything about dyscalculia and how to help students who have it, please do so in the comments below. Thanks for reading.


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