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Koller, Singler team to pen ‘Math Island’

Gillian Singler and John Koller hold copies of their book, "Math Island." (Ryan McGaughey / The Globe)

WORTHINGTON — John Koller has always loved to write — a trait not always common in a math teacher.

Koller, who’s in his 21st year at Worthington High School and taught 10 years before that in the Sioux Valley-Round Lake-Brewster district, had been writing math-related material for years, but had something different in mind for his latest effort  — a novel.

Enter Gillian Singler, a full-time English professor at Minnesota West Community & Technical College, who previously was employed at WHS for 10 years. Singler and Koller have teamed up to produce “Math Island,” a novel geared primarily toward elementary-aged youths that’s now available via as well as through contacting Koller.

As Koller explained, he was by no means a writing novice prior to sitting down to create “Math Island.

“I’ve been writing curriculum forever and had written four other books, but they’ve been three-ring-binder-type things where schools could copy them. Two of those were in reference to the state basic skills testing that was done in the late 1990s and early 2000s,” Koller said.

“Then I wrote a stand-alone seventh grade math textbook a few years after that was sold primarily in Minnesota or the Upper Midwest area,” he continued. “Writing is a passion of mine, but once you start a family things change and priorities change. But I got this into my mind five or six years ago — I knew I had methods to help students work with numbers mentally and not always rely on a calculator.”

Koller’s idea for his story centered upon a brother and sister who embark on an unexpected — and decidedly math-related — journey. He started on the project on his own, coming up with a majority of the characters and even showing his efforts to a publisher.

“I had about 60 pages of a story and had gotten feedback from a publisher that looked at it a couple years ago and said I needed to develop the characterization and the plot,” Koller said.

That’s when Singler entered the picture, after Koller approached her about potential assistance.

“This sounded like such a great idea,” she said. “As soon as I started looking at it, I really thought we could blend together two disciplines, math and English. There’s often this idea that you’re good at one and not as good at the other.”

“The cool thing is Gillian has added tremendously to the story and there's a literary piece at the end of each chapter,” Koller added. “And there's vocabulary within the chapter, and both vocabulary and her questions tie in literary elements that go along with the story.

“Now we feel we have a book that is a game-changer on the mental math front, and it’s a great story.”

“Math Island,” which was ultimately self-published, acknowledges that we live in a technology-driven world, yet technology is not always an optimum means of arriving at solutions.

“Traditional math algorithms are single-digit working a number right to left,” Koller explained. “This book totally challenged that. We look at the number from front to back … and add mental two- and three-digit strategies. By the end of this book, you’ll have kids mentally adding digits in the hundreds.

“We live in a world where everyone is on a screen, and I included some of that in the plot,” Singler said. “It also mattered that there was playful bantering between the characters, and my two 14-year-olds and 11-year-old actually read through the book while I was writing it. I got great feedback on every chapter.

“Each chapter establishes a foundation for the next and it all culminates in the end with a battle,” she related. “The island is magical and runs on brain power, and when characters don’t use their brains and use their calculators, it drains the power from the island. In the end, they have a math battle.”

Singler noted that she was “flattered” in Koller’s belief in her ability to help develop the book, and said she ended up writing more than she thought she would originally. Additionally, “Math Island” benefits from the illustrations of Tony LeTourneau, whose artwork appears on the front cover and throughout the book’s pages.

Koller and Singer are eager to do what they can to have “Math Island” make an educational impact.

“There’s a lot of great characters on Math Island and they kind of take these kids under their wing, not just mathematically,” Koller said. “I don’t think this could have turned out any better. I want to get these out to teachers, and to get kids to challenge themselves. I want kids to believe that they can do stuff out of the norm and not just rely on technology, but to develop their brains and have big-picture thinking.”

“I this is definitely a complementary piece to things that are already being done in elementary math,” Singler said. “John and I are both passionate about learning, passionate about teaching, and passionate about getting people together to be motivated to be passionate about learning.”

“I do have a passion to get this book out there,” Koller agreed. “I’ve got a lot of things going on  — including teaching, Crystaleyes fishing and coaching golf — but I want to get this book out there to help kids.

“My dad taught me how to look at numbers differently, and that was a game-changer. I just want kids to believe they can achieve at a really high level.”

A book-signing event for “Math Island” is scheduled to take place from 9 to 11 a.m. May 4 at Mike Woll Investment Office, 201 Ninth St., Worthington. Price of the book at the signing event is $15,

In addition to its availability on Amazon, interested buyers can receive a personalized copy with directions for purchase by emailing

Ryan McGaughey

I first joined the Daily Globe in April 2001 as sports editor. I later became the news editor in November 2002, and the managing editor in August 2006. I'm originally from New York State, and am married with two children.

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