It was sixth grade when I first learned that I was bad at math. It was our pre-algebra unit, and it was the first time I'd ever felt challenged by a math problem. I was trying to quickly wipe away my frustrated tears when I was told, "That's okay. You're more of a reader than a mathematician."
I did as little math as I could get away with in high school and college. I remember feeling confused: I noticed that I could add and multiply sums more quickly than many of my peers. I even tested into one of the more advanced math classes at my school, but I thought it was all a fluke. "I'm a reader, not a mathematician," I thought.
I became interested in agriculture, because I was interested in the spiritual, poetic, Wendell Berry aspect of farming. Little did I know at the time that my chosen career path was inherently mathematical. My job a a horticulturist is just a series of mathematical word problems, all day long: fertilizer ratios, days to plant maturity, row spacing, building with the Pythagorean theorem, estimating yields.
At the girls' school where I work, I collaborated with the fifth grade math, English, and Chinese teachers to create a cross-curricular project that shows the girls that math, poetry, world languages, and farming are all complementary, and they can be good at all of it.
The girls were in the midst of their poetry unit called "Bloom Where You're Planted" in their English class. They read Maya Angelou's "Still I Rise," then came to my farm lab to learn how to plant.
We divided the girls up into three small groups and had them create mathematical arrays out of these Jiffy peat pellets. (As an aside, I prefer to plant in these peat pellets for school projects, because they're much easier for young ones to handle while planting.) The pellets come dried and compacted, and they need to soak in water to expand into plantable little nuggets.
Once they created an array, they filled their trays with water. While we waited for the pellets to puff up, the girls were given an assignment to start writing a poem, using some of the themes and imagery of planting, growing, and blooming, as well as some of the poetic structures they learned about in a previous English class.
Once the pellets were ready, pencils were put away and the girls were given their Chinese vegetable seeds to plant. They had to work with one another to ensure that each peat pellet got only one seed. The trays of veggies went into my grow light station.
A few days later, the same group of girls came out to the farm with their math class. They were given measuring tools and a bundle of little flags. They had to figure out the dimensions of the bed. Then, I told them that each plant needed to be at least 8 inches apart from one another in rows that were at least 12 inches apart, and the plants couldn't be closer than four inches from the edge of the bed. Using those parameters, they had to figure out the maximum number of plants we could plant in each bed. They flagged out where each plant should go. They also figured out the volume of empty space in the raised bed and calculated how much compost I should add to the raised bed to reach the very top.
The weather turned cold, so I transplanted their Chinese vegetables on the farm for them. Now, I'm collaborating with their Chinese teacher to plan the next aspect of the lesson. We'll harvest the bok choy and green garlic from the farm in a couple of weeks. The girls will learn how to cook and eat bok choy, while simultaneously learning Chinese culinary vocabulary words.
The girls are learning that nothing is in a silo. What they learn in one class connects to their other studies and connects to the outside world. They're learning that math shows up in places that they may not expect. Their mathematical computations helped me solve a real-life problem, and they'll soon be able to harvest and taste the fruits of their labor. I hope they're learning that they can become poets, mathematicians, linguists, farmers... or even all of those things at once.