Today on the podcast we’re talking about the value of integrating literature into the math classroom. Sue O’Connell has decades of experience as an elementary teacher, teaching specialist, and math coach, informing her multifaceted approach to math instruction. She is the lead author on the Math in Practice series, and most recently the lead author on the Math by the Book series, a K-5 resource for connecting children’s literature and math.
Today, Sue is joined by two of her co-authors on the Math by the Book series, Marcy Myers, currently an elementary mathematics resource teacher, and Georgina Rivera, a math educator focused on equity and culturally relevant pedagogy. Together they explore how literature can enhance math instruction, ideas for choosing pieces of literature, and how to authentically engage children’s whole selves.
Their conversation began by discussing the benefits of integrating literature into primary math lessons.
Below is a transcript of this episode.
Sue: Beginning with a story immediately draws students into the lesson. They want to hear about the characters. They want to think about the story events or predict what's going to happen next in the story. They'd like to talk about the story. So it's just the perfect opportunity to jump from this story context into map explorations. They're engaged right from the start. Gina, do you want to add anything to that?
Gina: Sure. Some of the things that I've seen in the classroom when students start with a story is they get the opportunity to act out the math within the story. So sometimes they do that with manipulatives so they can use manipulatives to model what's happening in the story. And I've also seen actual students stand and groups of students actually act out parts of a story, which helps them to connect the math with the story. The other piece is stories have lots of illustrations where students can explore mathematics. So throughout many of the stories, you're going to see the pages are filled with images where students can connect mathematics to what's happening in the story. And that gives them the opportunity to connect ideas. So for example, in Monster Math Picnic, you'll see students that see 10 monsters split in different ways in the illustrations. And students can actually use materials to model those 10 monsters and the way they can be split into two separate groups to explore that concept of making a ten.
Sue: Marcy, would you like to add anything?
Marcy: Yes. I just think primary teachers just love teaching through stories. It can be just a natural way to start the math lesson. And it gives teachers a way to help students understand the math through what's happening in the story. And it provides that context that's the perfect way to teach the math. When you think of Apple Picking Day by Candace Ransom, the brother and the sister they go to pick the apples and they're putting some in a basket, then they can add some more apples. So you can start to understand addition and how putting those together and act that out and then add in the equation. Really then the context of the story problem really gives meaning to the operations, whether it's addition or subtraction or comparing or whatever they're doing. But just that context really enriches the math that the students are doing.
Sue: Yeah, it's amazing how bringing that literature into our math classes benefits both the students and the teacher. So teachers often ask me for suggestions, for picking children's literature to use in their primary math classrooms. For me, the starting point is thinking about where would I see this math? When would I ever use this? And then I look for books to explore those situations. So for second graders who are creating line plots, and then talking about the data on the plots, I think about things that might be able to be measured. And then I look for books that would show that. So for example, I thought about things growing in a garden, the heights of plants in a garden. And that's what led me to a variety of books like Harvesting Friends by Kathleen Contreras. It's a great story about a family garden that turns into a community garden. And it's all about those growing things within that garden. So perfect opportunity for talking about the heights of those tomato plants or bean plants.
So for me, I think about the math concept and then try and find a real situation that might fit that concept and go out and look for a book that shows that. So what else might you look for or think about as you're making books selections?
Marcy: I'm always drawn to the illustrations. When I pick up the book and start to leaf through it, whether how the pictures jump out of the page and what math can I see in those illustrations. Because the pictures help the math come to life. S fun story with interesting characters and you think of, like Gina said, the Monster Math and what math is embedded in that. And really the books don't have to be specifically written for math, but really that context they provide the can really hook the students into the math problems and go from there, whether it's looking at the data or understanding the operations or comparing it. But I look at those pictures to see if it draws me in.
Sue: I think that idea too of branching out from those books that have been traditionally written to teach math concepts, there are some wonderful ones out there. But there are so many great pieces of children's literature that weren't written to teach mathematics, but have everyday situations in which we use mathematics. So as teachers, we're really starting to see that we have so many more books to pick from, to use in our math lessons if we move beyond those. That group that were written to teach mathematics, move beyond that and just look at wonderful children's literature out there. Gina, anything else? Any other perspectives on that and what you look for when you're trying to pick a book to use in a math classroom?
Gina: Sure. So I love what you just said Sue, about moving beyond just traditional maybe books that were written for mathematics. And I really look for also books that create windows and mirrors for our students. When you're a classroom teacher, you really want to make sure that you're incorporating literature that reflects not only the students in your classroom, but also providing opportunities for them to see cultures that maybe are not within their classrooms. So when I say windows and mirrors, mirrors would be like reflections of the students and their lived experiences and the way that they use math. So if there's a literature book about a student and they've talked about how they've used math, that's a book that you can bring into your math classroom.
The other piece is also creating windows. And so what books can I pick so I can show students about other cultures and how they could connect math and a story into their math lesson? So I look for things like that. I also look for authentic stories. So we know there's a lot of books out there, but as consumers of literature I always look at, is this an own voice author? Is this an author sharing a lived experience that they have? And the reason why I say that is because students get really excited when they see authentic stories related to their own culture or maybe mathematics they do within their household.
And so I just want to say that I know that Sue did an amazing job, really looking at a variety of authors as we went through this and picking books that represent both authors and illustrators that are sharing their lived experience and really moving beyond just the traditional math books and bringing in authentic stories from diverse authors. And I really appreciate that about the series. And I think it brings another level of connection where we want to build relationships in mathematics, both with our students, but also tying them to important math standards.
Sue: I absolutely agree. And I also think it's always special when we can find some pieces of literature with some underlying themes in the stories like kindness and sharing and community or conservation. Especially if those underlying themes have a really positive message because today teachers are looking for that in their classroom opportunities to talk about lots of those different topics. And these books that are used for mathematics, if they have that underlying theme and that positive message, they can go far beyond just the mathematics lessons. So once you've selected that book, what types of math activities make good after reading tasks for primary students? What activities would you suggest to teachers as they jump from the story into the mathematics?
Marcy: Always that modeling. Just going back and having the students either act out the problem or using manipulatives to demonstrate the math. Whatever the context of the problem is, how can you show that through acting it out, modeling the manipulatives? It just always goes back to it. I think of Parade by Donald Crews where the students can act out the arrays as the marchers in the parade are going through in different formations. So the three rows of four marchers can then be written out as the four plus four plus four. You can show the array with linking cubes. You can show them with counters, you can draw it in their math journals and really just represent it. Anything that you can start with and go back to that story, I think is a perfect connection.
Sue: Yes. Students love acting out stories. There's such energy that comes into the classroom when they can get up and act out what happened in that store.
Marcy: And I think so that it just gives them that common background information and a starting point for the lesson. Once you've read the story and you're ready to start into the math lesson, it really gives all of the students the prior knowledge or the common background experience to then go into the math because everyone's starting from the same point with the literature that they've heard.
Gina: So when I think about after the teacher has read the story, students really love doing story problems that are related to the story. So it might not be exactly in the story, but they can connect it to the story because students will always go back to that original story and make that connection to the context. And they get really excited about that. The other thing that I've noticed students really like is interactive practice. So having a game or activity that's directly related to a particular part of the story.
So when I think of the series, I think of the book Thanking the Moon: Celebrating the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival by Grace Lin. And in that one, students start with a plate of 10 moon cakes and they can use any 10 items. And then they spin to find out how many more to add to their plate. And so anything that's interactive or like a game, students get really excited about because not only are they still thinking about the story, they're now taking the story and connecting it to this idea and playing math games and bringing all of the mathematics and the story together in this one place. I find it actually very motivating and I haven't met a student in first grade or a young learner who doesn't love a math game after a story.
Sue: Oh, I totally agree. They love the acting out the stories, the doing word problems about the stories, the playing games related to the story. The thing is here, they're experiencing mathematics in context. That story is the context, then they're playing with the mathematics. As I've worked with schools, people often ask me, "How do I fit the children's literature into my existing math curriculum?" What suggestions could you offer to a teacher for ways they can insert children's literature into an existing program?
Gina: One idea is if the literature is focused on the same standard or skill that is currently within their program, that is an opportunity for them to start with that story. So I always say launching a unit with a story is a great way to kick off a lesson. So even if they started with a story that day and used maybe some of the activities, if they couldn't use them all, to kick off a unit would be a great way to really integrate both the literature and the activities within their current program that they're using.
The other thing that they could think about is, and I thought about this after is sometimes teachers will start their day with a story and then they could play some games in the morning. Sometimes they'll have like a morning meeting, so that could be connected and they could actually use that story and use math tools to still accomplish the same goal that's within their curriculum or their program, but maybe save a little time during the morning time and still use it as an addition to their program. So I look at as an enhancement of any program to help students reach the math standard that they're working towards.
Marcy: I want to start with, I love what Gina said about launching and getting started, because it just gives you a common point to come back to. If you started with a good children's story and you've started the math, you can always come back to it a couple of days later, and you come back to it with the games that you revisit. Or as you're reviewing skills, you can go back to it and go back to the same problems, the same context and review it. So I think that's so important to get started with. But then also just do it. When you find a children's book that really speaks to you and has a context that goes with the math, just work it in there. Go ahead and take a little bit of time to establish that common experience for the students. Read the book.
And you don't want to turn it into a whole literature lesson. It's just reading the stories as you go through it, but it really provides a different approach to the same standards that we're all teaching. You're still going to use your manipulatives and your math tools and your resources to do all the good things in the lessons that you do. But really the literature just comes back to and provides that starting point for all the students. And it gives a theme to the lesson or the day because sometimes when you're teaching concepts and story problems in the primary grades, we spend a lot of time on those in all of the grade levels. And you need a new context, you need to provide something new. We've all done problems with cupcakes and cookies. And we go through that and we just need something new to breathe new life into the math that we're doing to go along with the manipulatives and resources that we use every day.
Sue: And these stories will definitely do that and breathe new life into things. And really, again, I just think about just up the energy in the classroom. Could you share a final thought about the power of children's literature in primary math classrooms?
Marcy: I said it throughout and I just keep going back to the context, because I do think that it just provides so much for students in a common experience, a common language to go back to when we think about our diverse learners that are in front of us these days. And trying to build the sense of community within the classroom. And as we go back to that, it's just happened so naturally with children's literature. And as we would go through and read the books that we're using for Math by the Book, that it's just so exciting to see where the math is within the stories. You can solve the problems, you revisit it in future days, it just provides that way to get started for us all.
Gina: So my final thought is when I think about just literature or storytelling in general, storytelling is just something that's been passed on for generations if we think about right. So cultures, the way they pass on knowledge is through storytelling. So what better way to learn math than through stories as a launching point? Because when I think about what kids remember at the end of the year, for so many years, kids would always come up to me and always talk about, "Remember that story we read together?" And so having that as a launching point for the mathematics that we're doing, plus all of the activities, to me there's so much power in literature, especially for our early learners.
They love being huddled around their teacher and listening to a story and talking about what's happening in that story and really using that to enhance their learning. And I see that many of them even go home and tell their families about these stories. And when we're creating ideas like windows and mirrors with these diverse stories that we've included in Math by the Book, it's going to be even stronger because students are seen in their stories and they can talk about not only the story and the math, but the way that they were seen in the story, or maybe a possible window that was created. So I just think there's no better way than teach math and incorporate stories with math.
Sue: And just as a final thought, I just think of all the times when students say, "When are we ever going to use this?" And I think literature really helps students see that math is all around them. If these primary students have math experiences where they see mathematics in context, they're just seeing and recognizing that math is a part of their life. Math is everywhere. So Gina and Marcy, it's been fun talking about math and literature with you. And thank you so much for joining me.
Susan O’Connell has decades of experience supporting teachers in making sense of mathematics and effectively shifting how they teach. As a former elementary teacher, reading specialist, and math coach, Sue knows what it’s like in the classroom and her background is evident throughout her work as she unpacks best practices in a clear, practical, and upbeat way.
Sue is the lead author of the new Math by the Book series, a K-5 resource connecting math and children's literature.
She is also the lead author of Math in Practice, a grade-by-grade K-5 professional learning resource. She is also coauthor of the bestselling Putting the Practices Into Action, Mastering the Basic Math Facts in Addition and Subtraction, and Mastering the Basic Math Facts in Multiplication and Division. She served as editor of Heinemann’s popular Math Process Standards series and also wrote the bestselling Now I Get It.
Connect with Sue on Twitter: @SueOConnellMath
Marcy Myers has over 25 years of education experience, both as a classroom teacher and currently as an elementary mathematics resource teacher supporting pre-kindergarten through fifth grade in a Title I school. She is certified as a mathematics instructional leader, a core member of the Elementary Math Specialists and Teacher Leaders project, and has also presented at several state and national conferences.
Connect with Marcy in the Math in Practice Facebook group
Georgina Rivera is a passionate math educator focused on equity, collective teacher efficacy, culturally relevant pedagogy and teacher leadership. She currently serves as a school administrator for Bristol Public Schools. Prior to this position, she was the district's Elementary STEM Supervisor, a district math coach, and started her career as a middle school mathematics teacher. She is an author and presenter both at the local and national level.
Georgina serves on various boards including Ed Reports Math Advisory, Math Teacher’s Circle for Social Justice, Teacher Leader Fellowship Academy, and serves as the Professional Learning Director for the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics (NCSM). In September 2021, she will begin her new role as the NCSM 2nd Vice President.
Follow her on Twitter: @mathcoachrivera