Posted by: Mark Nielsen | June 3, 2009

Thinking Outside of the Barn… I Mean, Box

A calf at Wagner farm in Glenview attempts to eat my son's ear.

A calf at Wagner farm in Glenview attempts to eat my son's ear.

      Graham worked on a mathematics unit based on agriculture and animal farming this spring at school, including a field trip to Wagner Farm in Glenview. (I helped chaperone… a pretty cool place. Plus as an adult male in an elementary school setting, I was treated like a rock star by the first graders, given that so few men work in or visit grade schools.)

So today’s example of Graham’s “outside the box” thinking comes from a worksheet he did as part of that farm unit. Picture this: on the worksheet called Farm Animal Story Problem 1, there’s a drawing of 3 cows in a barn. But the bottom part of the barn’s half-door is closed. And here’s the question: How many legs? Below the drawing is a show-your-work box. In the box, Graham re-drew three stick-cows, then counted their legs by labeling each pair of legs (2-4-6-8-10-12). Below that, he further told the “story” by writing out the equation “2×6=12 legs”.

Now he got the answer right, which is the important thing. But think about how he did that math, or told that story, from an oblique angle: it was not three cows times four legs, or four legs times three cows (the two more natural, concrete groupings that I assume many people would have done). Instead, he counted his own arbitrary pairings of front or back legs on the cows.  Thus he got 2 legs times 6 pairs equals 12. And this was one of the first multiplication equations we’ve ever seen him construct. I found it cute, but also a sign that he’s an exceptionally abstract thinker. With parents like us, he’s sure to be an odd one. But he’ll be fine, and we love him just as he is.

In other farm/school news, a nice bonus was that since Sue is done with classes for the year, we all went into Graham’s classroom yesterday morning before school, so he could show us the 2 foot by two foot paper-constructed farm he “bought” and laid out on posterboard. He was quite proud. He told us about the whole process, and showed us the mapping he had done before setting out the actual sections of land, road, pond or fence (to contain the horses, pigs, sheep, crops, scarecrows, etc.). Unfortunately, not many parents came in to pick up their kids’ farm projects. I just don’t get these Skokie families sometimes…

A minor advantage for Graham –what he has over some of his peers experience-wise– is that he gets a regular glimpse of working farms up-close, when we go to our lake cottage in Wisconsin. One of our favorite walks or bike rides is to the nearby farmhouse, with a horse barn and two friendly white horses (one more friendly than the other), whose fence comes right up close to the road. We also enjoy seeing the dozens of tall sandhill cranes picking through marchine-harvested fields in the fall, scavenging for dropped corn. And giving Graham (and ourselves) more direct experience of the sights, sounds and smells of  rural, marshland or woodsy environments is one of the main reasons we pay the high price of maintaining that “getaway” house forty minutes west of Oshkosh (not exactly a stone’s throw away from Skokie). The reduced amount of time Graham spends watching TV or on the computer when we go up there is a sure sign that he’s on the right track.

So while we have not taken Graham horseback riding yet, and the only tractor he’s been on is the John Deere we cut our grass with in Wisconsin, he’s still getting to experience the best of all worlds: occasional subway rides into Chicago, decent suburban schools where he excels and gets noticed (he’s in a gifted program already), and good ol’ country living (where we can pick up home-grown fingerling potatoes and fresh eggs straight from our farmer friends…)



  1. Thinking Outside of the Barn… I Mean, Box .Thanks for nice post.I added to my twitter.

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