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Ten Apples Up on Top!

Launching a Math Lesson with Dr. Seuss

Choosing a book by Dr. Seuss to launch a math lesson made me reflect on the author’s contributions to children’s literature. Although Theodor Seuss Geisel is immensely popular, there has recently been some criticism about how Dr. Seuss characterizes people of color and how, in some of his books, he perpetuates negative stereotypes.

While many of Dr. Seuss’ stories explicitly condemn discrimination based on difference, like The Sneetches, or espouse environmentalism, like The Lorax (Education Week, 2021), we feel it’s still necessary to examine his books. In fact, it’s important to scrutinize all of the literature we share with children in math class to make sure there are no negative stereotypes and that students see themselves (or others) positively reflected or represented in the books they are read to (see our blog post What Does it Mean to be a Culturally Responsive Math Educator?). Vetting children’s books is something I do before using them in math class.

Examining Books for Math Class

When I choose children’s literature to launch a math lesson, I look for books that have interesting or fun characters. I look for books that have contexts that serve as mirrors for children to see themselves in the story or serve as windows into another culture. And I look for storylines or situations that can be launching pads into rich math experiences.

In Dr. Seuss’ Ten Apples Up on Top, I didn’t find any negative stereotypes. What I did find were many contexts that can help young children think about combining, comparing, and decomposing numbers in different ways. The book offers students silly situations and fun animal characters that would put a smile on any reader. And I found the familiar, predictable rhyming that Geisel is so good at and that children love and can read along to. So, with Elba Ozakay’s recommendations and ideas, I decided to share the book and some math with a group of students in my friend Frannie McKenzie’s K-1 classroom in San Diego.


Reading the Book

The students loved listening to Ten Apples Up on Top!  There were numerous opportunities for me to ask them math questions. For example, when the lion has 3 apples up on top of their head and the dog has 4, I asked, “How many apples altogether? How do you know?” When both animals have 3 apples up on top I asked, “Do they have an equal number of apples on their heads? How do you know?” When the lion, dog, and tiger each have 10 apples up on top of their heads, we choral counted together by tens. And towards the end of the book, I had students estimate how many apples were in the giant cart being pulled by a horse and commandeered by what looks like a dog. “About how many apples do you think are in that big cart? A million apples? Three apples? One hundred apples? Fifty apples?” These questions tapped into whether these young students had reasonable estimates for large quantities.

Modeling and Playing the Apples Up on Top Game

After I finished reading the book, Frannie and I used her document camera to model how to play the Apples Up on Top Game (directions here and gameboard here). To play the game, partners use a gameboard (see below). One player rolls a die and places that many cubes of one color “up on top” of the lion’s head. The next player rolls the die and places that many cubes of a different color “up on top” of the lion’s head. Players figure out how many cubes are “up on top” altogether. Players move onto the tiger, and then the dog following the same directions.

Apples Up On Top Directions.docx
Download PDF • 323KB

Apples up on top game board.docx
Download PDF • 61KB

The students loved playing the game. We noticed that there were many opportunities to ask them math questions such as, “How many altogether? How did you figure it out?” “Which animal has more on top? How do you know?” “How many more does the _____ have on top than the ______?”

As children played the game, we monitored and looked for evidence of whether students had one-to-one correspondence and how they combined and compared quantities. One pair of students had finished putting cubes “up on top” of the lion (see below). I asked, “How many altogether?” One player instantly responded, “It’s 9. I know because there’s one empty space on top. Nine plus one more is ten.” I then turned to their partner and asked, “Do you agree there are nine up on top?” They shrugged and then proceeded to count the cubes, one-by-one. Monitoring students revealed a lot about their math thinking.

Solving the Apples Up on Top Word Problem

When students were finished playing the game, Frannie called them back to the carpet and introduced the Apples Up on Top word problem. I purposely worded the problem (see below) so that it was open-ended. Students could choose the number of apples “up on top” to decompose.

There were ___ apples up on top of the _______.

Some were green and some were red.

How many of each were on top of the __________?

How many green apples? How many red apples? 

Apples Up On Top Word Problem.docx
Download PDF • 30KB


Allowing students to choose their number served to differentiate the problem. And letting them choose their animal was motivating and interesting for them and for us! We saw in their problems puppies, unicorns, goats, wolves, kittens, cats, humans, koalas, leopards, and even a sloth!

As we circulated, we noticed a range of thinking.  For example, students chose different numbers to decompose. Lani (see below) chose to have 2 apples up on top of her koala and found 2 different ways: 1 red and 1 green, and 2 red and 0 green apples. Samuel (see below) chose to have 10 apples up on top of his wolf. He found 5 different ways to make 10. Both students were able to represent their thinking using equations. Leaving the problem open created a low floor and high ceiling, allowing students to work at their own place while challenging others to go beyond 10 (Mariam found 3 ways to make 14).




Some students were confused because they were using cubes to model the problem that didn’t match the colors of the apples. Once I suggested that they use red and green cubes, it cleared the way for them to access the problem. Even using cubes to represent realia (like apples) can be challenging for children and is something to consider when posing problems in the early grades.


Lots of Take Aways

Introducing Ten Apples Up on Top! gave me a lot to think about. It reminded me how powerful using children’s literature can be, and how important it is to vet the books to make sure they are free of negative stereotypes. The experience also brought to my attention how important it is to differentiate our instruction so that all students can be successful and experience a challenge. And finally, incorporating children’s interests is one of the keys to sparking joy and motivation during math class.

Thank you, Frannie, for inviting me into your inspiring class! And thanks to Elba Ozakay who shared her ideas for the Apples Up on Top Game.

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