Tessellations are not boring.

work by M.C. Escher

Checking on a math and literacy project in a colleague’s classroom, and a third grade boy who is wicked smart told me smugly that he found tessellations boring. He had read about them in Penrose the Mathematical Cat by Theoni Pappas. I use this book in an integrated math and literacy project I created. Making his own tessellation was a possible activity he could do: create it, design it, color it, but nope, Boring. So boring in fact, he’d accept a “3” out of “4” for his entire project happily and escape back into his fantasy novel. Nine years old and just not worth his time.

I worked with him a bit on the idea but he wasn’t having it. So I nodded and moved on but I admit I was fuming inside. As most teachers do, I hate the word boring. “This is boring” from the students. “My child is bored” from the parents. It becomes a mantra from the student to not engage. Frustration from the parent who just doesn’t know what to do with their smart but unmotivated kid.

I’m not stupid. Some options, ok sometimes many, given to students are boring. Another worksheet on a topic they already know? Time wasting nonsense.  Test preparation lessons that some students don’t need? Numbingly dull.  Writing yet another response to every single book they’ve read? Gross. It would make me want to stop reading.

But an opportunity to create and design a tessellation? Not even close.

An hour later, I went back to his classroom and placed the largest coffee table version of M.C. Escher’s work on that child’s desk. It covered his desk. I said, “Look closely at this work by a mathematician and artist, and tell me that tessellations are boring. And you might find impossible figures as well. Maybe even a fractal or two or several dozen.” Smugly, I walked away.


M.C. Escher

Sometimes sparking children’s interest can feel like you’re looping an impossible loop. But leading them down staircases that take them to upside down rooms might shake them out of their need to escape or their lack of looking at something a little more closely to find fascination there. Perhaps motivate them to start with a square, cut a crazy shaped piece out of one side, slide it across, tape it. Viola! A template to tessellate. A shape that can now be a fish or a bird or a man on a horse. Moving across the plane with no spaces in between.


About andreabittle

Teach happy. Teach right. Speak up!
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