The Power of Stories in Math Class

This past summer my husband and oldest son decided to order some ducklings from our local agriculture store. Ducklings, as it turns out, can only be ordered in groups of 20. So, one warm June day we drove to the store and gathered the 20 ducklings. 

The plan was to raise these ducklings into full grown, egg laying hens so that my son could sell the eggs locally (who knew a half a dozen duck eggs can sell for $7.00?!?). As you can imagine the cute, messy, water loving ducklings grew up quite quickly and in no time at all they were a part of our family and were laying eggs. About that same time I was being asked to come in and model math in some local 4th grade classrooms. These 4th graders were working on NBT.5: “Using strategies based on place value and the properties of operations, multiply a whole number of up to four digits by a one-digit whole number, and multiply two two-digit numbers. Illustrate and Explain the calculation by using equations, rectangular arrays, and/or area models” 

As I prepared for the lessons I realized that the 20 ducks at home provided a great math hook and intro to the math of the day. Because, you see, we had a multiplication problem going on at home. If a hen lays an egg every day that is 20 eggs a day, but if there are 30 or 31 days in a month how many eggs can we expect to get? Or, if we are packing the eggs into 6 egg cartons how many cartons will I need to buy at the end of each month to make sure I have enough packaging for all the eggs? How much money could my son expect to make in a month selling 6 eggs for 7 dollars? 

When the time came to teach in these 4th grade classrooms I showed a few pictures of the ducks, first as ducklings and then full grown, and then briefly talked about some of the problems my son had to solve in order to be successful with his egg business (and I shared what a mess 20 ducks can be!) Then, with a context and a picture in their mind these 4th graders went right to work solving different multiplication problems based on ducks, eggs, egg cartons, and potential income. When it came time to close the lesson and reflect student’s had much to share on not only what they learned and how the context of the ducks provided a schema to support the mathematics. 

Anytime I am in front of learners, students or adults, I want them to feel engaged and see themselves in the math that we are doing. If I can tell a story, show pictures or a short video my students will have a context and an interest in the math that we are doing today. Dan Myer is famous for this with his 3-Act Math Tasks (many others have curated great tasks that follow this same format) where students are hooked into a real life situation and slowly given more information that encourages the learning of the day. Additionally, there is  science behind why students are more engaged when storytelling is involved. In the TEDx Talk: The Magical Science of Storytelling David JP Phillips shows the science and the power with storytelling and how our brains respond and are more engaged when a story, and storytelling is involved. 

Notice and Wonder:

What stories are happening or have happened in your life that can be integrated into your math classroom? 

-How does sharing quick stories with your students humanize mathematics for your students? 

-What is a positive math memory that you have when you were a child? Can that memory be made into a story to share with your students? 


Math Identity

Sample student math identity surveys

Last week a group of teachers and I were planning and discussing what a rich math block could look like in our classrooms. A week prior the teachers had been asked to give their students a short math identity survey. The teachers were then asked not to look at the surveys until they came to our sesion. These surveys became a place of grounding and goal setting for our time. In the survey, one question was particularly interesting: “what does someone who is good at math do and say?” The answers ranged from, “know answers and say them quickly” to “can talk about the math that is going on in their head and help other people who don’t get it yet.” 

The student voice in the survey gave teachers a peek into the math identities of students and left us with a question….so, what now? 

Identity. Webster defines identity as “a noun; the fact of being who or what a person or thing is.” Our students come to us with a math identity already formed or in the forming stages and we hold influence in shifting and shaping that identity. Helping them see and experience who they are, and who they can be, as mathematicians. Tracy Johnston Zager begins her book, Becoming the Math Teacher You Wish You Had, with this topic of identity and breaking the cycle of negative math identities and how the language we use in with our students shapes their own identities. 

Secondly, John Hattie in his work with “Visible Learning” shows us the impact of teacher-student relationships (effect size of 0.72) and not labeling students (effect size of 0.61) can positively influence student academic achievement. This means, cultivating relationships with students in our classrooms where kids know they are capable of doing great math work in an environment where it is safe to struggle and fail. It means, as teachers we must work tirelessly to see that every student in our room and school are not labeled by a test score or a certain behavior. Working to end deficit language such as “low or high math kids” or, “not a math person” etc must be of highest priority. Finally, when I think of identity in school, specifically the math classroom, students must be able to see themselves in the curriculum and conversations. Is the math we teach and the problems we present representative of all students in our room? If not, what work needs to be done to ensure that each child has a positive math identity cultivated each day, this is inclusive of making sure they see themselves in the math we teach. What a wonderful opportunity we have as teachers to grow, support, and nourish positive math identities in our classrooms and schools. 

Notice and Wonder:

-What language do you use to describe the mathematicians in your room?

-Does the curriculum and conversations you are using provide a window and a mirror to your students?

-How do you see yourself as a mathematician? How would you like your student’s to see themselves in your classroom? 

Want to learn more about teacher effects and student achievement and identity? Check out:

Becoming the Math Teacher You Wish You Had by Tracy Johnston Zager, Stenhouse Publishing, 2017. 

Visible Learning in Mathematics K-12 by John Hattie, Corwin Publishing, 2016.