Math and Mirth
Retired teacher makes numbers
learning fun for kids

By Mary Bergin
The Capital Times
BELLEVILLE – Sticking to the numbers, if you’re Ray Blum, means coloring outside the lines. Success is a mix of metaphors as well as teaching techniques.
    The retired Madison middle school teacher knows how to use calculators, playing cards, rubber chickens, jars of peanut butter and jelly, bananas with faces, and ghost stories to add magic and humor to mathematics.
    Humor and math? Blum acknowledges that some people wouldn’t think of connecting the two. That makes him all the more motivated to prove math can be fun.
    The 1994 Wisconsin Middle School Teacher of the Year, who retired in 2002, performs up to five “mathemagic” shows per day at schools around the state. Each event averages 50 minutes, and contents can be made age-appropriate for kids from kindergarten to eighth grade.
    “Some kids are very nervous about math,” says Sally Baxter, grades K-6 principal at the Belleville School District, and Blum’s show alleviates the tension. This week he is the district’s weeklong artist-in–residence, working in classrooms and mesmerizing 180 students at a time in the gymnasium.
    “It’s been amazing to see them all engaged for this long,” Baxter says of the larger gathering of children.
Professor Numbers
                                                Mike Devries/The Capital Times
                      Ray Blum, as Professor Numbers,
                      dresses for the part and uses a var-
                      iety of props in his show in Belleville.

    Blum’s work fits well with the Belleville district’s priority this year to emphasize technology and its future, says Saundra Lynn-Swanson, grades K-6 Talented and Gifted (TAG) program coordinator.
    “Math is the basis for so many other technologies,” she notes. The school’s parent-teacher organization pays for Blum’s appearances.
    Riddles, audience participation, math puzzles and math jokes makes this act about more than numbers. The students enlarge their vocabulary as they count or watch magic tricks.
     “Let’s hear from somebody on the perimeter,” Blum suggests, as many hands are raised to answer a question. Many eagerly volunteer to be his assistants, or help him guess what should happen next.
    Three student volunteers pretend they’re Curley from “The Three Stooges,” as classmates figure out how seven cheeseburger lunches of $13 each can cost only $28.
    Some questions will be a springboard for classroom projects. Example: If there are 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, 24 hours in a day and 365 ¼ days in a year – how many seconds are in one year?
    Blum adds levity by wearing a bow tie and a white lab coat that is full of colorful numbers and math signs. He has about 200 tricks up these sleeves, and many have been part of his children’s books for Sterling Publishing: “Mathemagic” (1991), “Mathamazing” (1994), “Mathamusements” (1997) “Mathemania” (2000).

Professor Numbers
                                           Mike Devries/The Capital Times
                              Ray Blum dresses for the part
                              of Professor Numbers.
    Some of his book tricks require calculators, dice or playing cards. His next book project will be a compilation of the best tricks he has developed. He is not the traditional magician because he is quick to share his secrets.
    Write for the children, Blum’s publisher suggested, and teachers will buy the books for their classrooms.
     Early in his teaching career, he realized that some children felt threatened by mathematics, and “I saw it as a challenge to spark their interest and attention.” That’s how the tricks began, in the 1970’s, because “you’re always looking for a hook to get kids interested.”
     Although he taught at five Madison middle schools and Memorial High, most of his classroom time was at O’Keeffe and Whitehorse schools.
     Magic and math have been longtime hobbies for this 60-year-old educator. He and daughter Katie, now working on her Ph.D. in clinical psychology, used to do a magic/juggling show around town, including Kids in the Crossroads. They were Raynbow and the Amazing Kaytee.

    As a solo act, the retiree’s circuit “gives me a teaching fix” and is “a way to give back to the community.” Wife Gerri sometimes is his assistant, working the rooms as Mrs. Numbers.
     Blum considers everything – from making show props to performing magic – exciting and fun.
“If your job is your hobby, that’s the best,” he says, “and that’s what I have.”
     For more about his work:, (608) 663-5822.


Return To Top