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Mathematizing Children's Literature for Deep Learning

Deep learning focuses on recognizing relationships among ideas. In the book Visible Learning for Mathematics, Grades K-12: What Works Best to Optimize Student Learning, the authors state that, “During deep learning, students engage more actively and deliberately with information in order to discover and understand the underlying mathematical structure.”

At Trinity, we wondered what would happen if we connected mathematics with reading and writing. How might we deepen understanding of numeracy using children’s literature? What if we mathematize our read-aloud books to use them in math as well as Readers and Writers Workshop? What opportunities will teachers have to learn more about their readers, writers, and mathematicians?
As a team, Early Learners through Third Grade teachers have taken up the challenge to integrate reading, writing, and mathematics during read-aloud moments. With coaching from Early Elementary Division Math Specialist Becky Holden, Director of Curriculum Marsha Harris, and Director of Teaching and Learning Jill Gough, Trinity Teachers actively engage in selecting, planning, and implementing mathematized read-alouds. 

Kindergarten Lead Teacher Shaun McCarthy says, “Using children’s literature to build numeracy is a fun and creative way to engage students that uses the left and right sides of their brain. Learning basic addition and subtraction is a part of Trinity’s Kindergarten curriculum. Teachers are given the flexibility of how to teach this important concept, and we love using a variety of texts to spotlight instruction.”

“For example, Pete the Cat is a favorite character among all students,” adds Kindergarten Lead Teacher Megan Noe, who shares a classroom with McCarthy. “Kimberly and James Dean’s new book Pete the Cat and the Missing Cupcakes is a perfect way to show the concept of joining together, addition, and taking away, subtraction. Throughout the book, Pete the Cat discovers that his friends are missing cupcakes for the birthday celebration. In ‘who-done-it’ fashion, Pete sets out to discover how the cupcakes go missing.”
As teachers and parents, we challenge students to show what they know in a variety of ways to develop deep foundational understanding of numeracy. We know that strong mathematicians are flexible thinkers, clear communicators, and creative problem solvers. Every day we see students learn and think differently. We do not want them to simply arrive at an answer, we want them to be able to explain and show us the many different ways that they discover a solution.

According to author Michael Flynn in his book Beyond Answers: Exploring Mathematical Practices with Young Children, “How students present their arguments is also important to learning and understanding. When students can verbally support their reasoning with drawings, models, number lines, and action, understanding increases and they provide a point of reference for other children to comment.”

While participating in Trinity’s Numeracy Through Children’s Literature professional development workshop, Third Grade Lead Teacher Lauren McClelland received the book The Lion’s Share: A Tale of Halving Cake and Eating It, Too by Matthew McElligott. Soon after, during a fractions unit when the class was discussing equivalent fractions, she overheard a debate amongst her students. A student argued that a half is a half is a half; 1/2= 2/4= 3/6, all are equal to a half. 
“In this instance involving the equivalent fractions, the student was spot on, but it made me raise the question of, ‘Is a half always equal to a half?’” says McClelland. “The students could tell by my tone that the answer was ‘No,’ but they weren’t entirely sure what I was getting at. So I decided to help them discover more about my question, and I knew this would be the perfect opportunity to bring literature into our math class.”

McClelland read The Lion’s Share aloud, and as the animals in the book continued halving the halves of cake, she had her students draw out the same scenario on their own “cake.” 

“Between the giggles, predictions, and squeals of, ‘Oh my gosh, the pieces are getting so small,’ I could see the light bulbs going off across the room,” says McClelland. “Although the animals in the book thought they had received a ‘fair share,’ our students discovered that it all depended on the size of the starting piece or the size of the whole. My students now had a better understanding of what I meant when I asked if a half is always equal to a half, and they could explain it, too.”

This read-aloud opened up the opportunity for rich discussion and engaging questions. Students received a more organic and deeper understanding of this math concept thanks to the book that brought it to life, and it was an engaging way to look at math through a different lens. As Professor of Mathematics Education at the Stanford Graduate School of Education Jo Boaler explains in her book Mathematical Mindsets: Unleashing Students’ Potential through Creative Math, Inspiring Messages and Innovative Teaching, “Mathematics is a subject that allows for precise thinking, but when that precise thinking is combined with creativity, flexibility, and multiplicity of ideas, the mathematics comes alive for people.”

Mathematizing children’s literature is one way that Trinity Teachers bring mathematics alive for our learners. We begin with a book or story and end with creative, flexible expression of thinking, problem-solving, and success.  
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