The ALCS Interview: Anna Weltman

"If you look for the things you can find them." The winner of the 2016 Educational Writers’ Award tells us about the beauty she finds in maths.

1. Tell us a bit about you and your writing career (and a word about your day job perhaps?)

This Is Not a Maths Book [winner of the 2016 Educational Writers’ Award, sponsored by ALCS and The Society of Authors] is my first official book! It’s exciting that my writing career is only just beginning. I am a middle school maths teacher and a doctoral student in maths education at the University of California, Berkeley. My work at UC Berkeley broadens access to and engagement in maths through helping kids think about the aesthetics of maths – how the maths they do might be beautiful and expressive, in addition to accurate and rigorous. That’s something that I hope This Is Not a Maths Book also achieves. In my spare time, I also co-author a maths blog for middle schoolers called Math Munch.


2. Where did your passion for maths come from?

Actually, I completely missed the beauty in maths when I was a kid. I didn’t start liking it until I was at university. And it was by chance that I took a math class at university at all, so I really have luck to thank for my current career!

As a kid, I found maths to be stressful and boring. I wasn’t very fast with numbers and I didn’t understand why I had to memorise theorems and formulas that someone had written about hundreds and thousands of years before. When I got to university though, maths became less about quickly completing calculations and more about expressing my ideas through symbols, logic, and reasoning. I learned to prove fascinating things, like that there are uncountably infinite numbers and sometimes you can have geometry where no lines are parallel. Even better, my professors shared their ground-breaking research with me. One of my professors studied knots – literally, knots you can tie with string. As a knitter and a rock-climber, I was hooked. I suppose you could say my passion for maths came from teachers who shared their passion with me.

3. How did This Is Not a Maths Book come about and what were your ambitions for it?

When I was a maths teacher in New York City, I taught a class called Mathematical Art. Some of my fellow teachers and I came up with the idea after visiting an exhibit of paintings by the artist Wassily Kandinsky and reading some of his writings about how he wove maths into his art. We quickly began to see how often art is inspired by maths (in, for instance, the work of Sol Lewitt and Richard Serra), and how beautiful works in maths can be like art (perhaps the Four Color Theorem or Euclid’s visual proof of the Pythagorean Theorem). So many of our students were amazing artists as well as budding mathematicians, and we wanted to give them the experience of doing both together.

I wrote about our class online, and Ivy Press (the publisher of This Is Not a Maths Book) found what I’d written and asked if I’d be interested in consulting on a maths art book. We started working together, and the rest is history!

Most of the activities in the book were ones that I used with my students. I really wrote it for them. And, actually, they wrote it with me. I couldn’t have done it without their help – sharing their favourite activities, testing out my writing, and showing me the amazing things they could make. Knowing that I had something that another teacher could pick up and begin using to share maths art with her students was my main ambition.

4. What were the biggest challenges in writing and compiling it?

As a teacher, I wasn’t used to preparing materials that kids would use without being able to ask me questions. One of my favourite things about teaching is giving kids something that inspires new questions and encouraging them to pursue those questions. I wanted to do that in this book. But I’d have to do it without talking to my readers! Trying to write prompts and questions that would anticipate the new ideas kids might have and encourage them to chase their ideas beyond the pages of the book was very challenging.

Actually, though, something I didn’t anticipate about being an author in the age of social media is how easy it is for my readers to get in touch with me. It’s exciting when I receive emails and tweets from parents and teachers sharing their kids’ creations with me. Just last week a maths teacher in the US sent me a proof her student had written inspired by the activity Loop-de-Loops. So I get to talk to my readers about their ideas after all!

… something I didn’t anticipate about being an author in the age of social media is how easy it is for my readers to get in touch with me.

5. What qualities do you think an excellent educational book needs to have?

I think any great educational book is the beginning of the adventure. A book has a limited number of pages stuck between a front and back cover – but children’s ingenuity is boundless. A great educational book should show a child something she’s never thought about before and invite her to explore it, first within the book and then in the world beyond.

6. What are you working on now?

I’m actually writing a sequel. It’s (tentatively) called This Is Not Another Maths Book. I keep accidentally calling it This Is Still Not a Maths Book. I’m also working on research and articles for my doctoral degree, and teaching middle school maths part time.

7. And… how do you feel about winning the Educational Writers’ Award?!

I feel great! It’s fulfilling to be acknowledged for hard work. I love maths art, and I know my students love maths art, but at times it was hard to imagine the nameless and faceless Book Customer picking my little book up in a store and thinking, “A book that’s not a maths book? Well, that sounds interesting!” The Educational Writers’ Award also goes to the illustrators, Edward Cheverton and Ivan Hissey, whose drawings bring the activities to life. It’s an honour to have the book recognised as something that can make a difference in children’s lives. This book is for both the kids who would eagerly pick up a book called, This IS a Maths Book!, and for the kids who, like younger me, aren’t sure they’re maths people yet. I hope this book shows those kids that if you look for the things you love in maths, you can find them. I found them in knots, art, and, most of all, writing for kids like you.

About the Educational Writers Award (EWA)

Now in its ninth year, the Educational Writers’ Award was established in 2008 by the Authors’ Licensing & Collecting Society (ALCS) and the Society of Authors (SoA) “to celebrate educational writing that inspires creativity and encourages students to read widely and build up their understanding of a subject beyond the requirements of exam specifications”.

Find out more about the EWA on the Society of Authors website.

Anna Weltman is a teacher in California, USA, with a passion for teaching children about maths, showing how it is part of the world around us, and present in music and art. When not sharing her love of maths, Anna enjoys art, craft, cooking and making music.

Interview by Caroline Sanderson, writer and editor of ALCS News.