Using Children’s Literature to Teach Number Sense
One of my favorite books that help children think about reasonableness and number magnitude is A Million Fish…More or Less by Patricia C. McKissack (Scholastic, 1992). McKissack is an award-winning author famous for her stories about African American life. In A Million Fish…More or Less, she tells a story about Hugh Thomas, a young boy who has adventures in the swampy bayou of Louisiana that include tall tales, rich colloquial language, unforgettable characters, and opportunities for children to reason about numbers.
The story opens with Hugh Thomas tossing his line into the swampy waters of the Bayou Clapateau. While he’s fishing, two swampers come rowing out of the “gauzy river fog.” Pappa-Daddy and Elder Abbajon begin to tell some pretty tall tales about their adventures. Pappa-Daddy tells Hugh Thomas that on the bayou, they once caught a wild turkey that weighed five hundred pounds! Elder Abbajon takes up the story and adds, “As we was marchin’ that gobbler home, I spied a lantern that’d been left by Spanish conquistadors back in the year 1542. And it was still burning!”
As the swampers get ready to leave, they tell Hugh Thomas that “Strange things do happen on the Bayou Clapateau.” At first, Hugh is skeptical about their exaggerated tales, but after he catches three fish his imagination runs wild.
I began the lesson by reading the book aloud to a group of third and fourth graders. If you don’t have the book, you can access the read aloud on video here:
A Million Fish More Or Less . . . (Read Aloud)
Hugh Thomas’ adventures pave the way for some interesting discussions with students. After reading the story, I asked the class, “Can a turkey really weigh five hundred pounds? I then prompted the class, “Five hundred couldn’t be the weight of a turkey, but it could be…”
Students suggested things like, “kids in our school, money in the bank, and the number of days in about a year and a half.”
I continued, “Can a lantern stay lit for hundreds of years?
“Can you really catch a million fish?” I asked.
I then provided the students with the following sentence frame:
_____ couldn’t be the number of ____________. But it could be the number of ___________.
I had them think of numbers that we could use to begin the sentence and wrote them down for the class to see. Then I gave them directions for the activity.
“Choose one of the numbers we brainstormed or any other you’d like to use,” I directed. “Use the number to begin the sentence frame, then complete the sentence and illustrate what you wrote.”
The students came up with lots of ideas, including how much things weigh, the number of kids in a school, how many socks in your dresser drawer, the number of whales at SeaWorld, how old a person could be, the age of a redwood tree, how many books one could read in a month, and on and on. Following are some examples of what they came up with.
“Twelve could not be the amount of eyelashes on Minnie’s eyes, but it could be the amount of roses in a bouquet.”
“63 could not be the number of one school class, but it could be the number of 2 classes.”
“868 could not be the weight of a pound of feathers, but 868 could be the number of words you could read in a book.”
“30 could not be the number of people in the U.S.A. but it could be the number of cm on a ruler.”
Promoting Sense Making
A Million Fish…More or Less turned out to be a rich and engaging lesson for several reasons. Students got to choose which numbers and real-world contexts to think, write, and draw about. They were able to listen to a story that provided a window into a colorful, regional culture. And the story context and writing assignment helped these third and fourth graders develop their number sense by asking them to reason about number size and determine whether numbers are reasonable for some situations and not for others. Most importantly, the lesson challenged the students to ask one of the most important questions we want them to ask themselves in math class, “Does this make sense?”