Episode 60: Helping Our Kids Go Back to School-Focus: Math

This is first in a series “Books that Spark” is doing on Back to School emphasizing great books for each subject area in school.

In this episode we look at picture books and resources that promote math skills and encourage children to enjoy math. Included in the show notes are helpful links for parents as well.

Books Discussed in This Episode:


Welcome to “Books that Spark,” a podcast for parents and caregivers, celebrating books that spark imagination, emotion, questions, and discussion, leading to teachable moments with our kids.

It’s now August, and we’re heading into September before we know it. And so we’re thinking of back to school, and whether you homeschool, your children go to public school or private school, we all are concerned about our children’s education and that they get the best education they can. And I thought it would be fun to look at some really great picture books for each subject area. That way you can supplement what your children are learning with those, or you can even use them as part of your curriculum if you homeschool. If you go to my social media, you’ll notice that I’ve posted some information for taking a quiz to determine the right kind of teaching style, learning style, and curriculum that you may want to use if you are choosing to homeschool. And I thought these quizzes might come in handy for some of you who are looking at homeschooling maybe for the first time, or maybe you’re wanting to see about changing some things from your past experiences. So look for those on my Facebook and Instagram. And one of the things that really struck me, if you listened to the recent interview I had with Marci Seither, one of the things that she brought up was how we need to advocate for our children and how we need to understand not only their learning style, but if they have any struggles or areas that are difficult for them–to be able to advocate for them, with the teachers, or be able to know how best to help them learn. And so that’s one of the things I want to talk about with this episode as well. And this actually will be a few episodes as we’re talking about the different subject areas.

So let’s jump in. I think it will be fun. And I think you’ll love some of these books. They are really great. So I want to start with math. We know that we have a lot of different counting books for the very young kids. We talked about with Danielle Hitchen, the books she’s written, and one of hers is also a counting book. And I’ll put that in the notes to remind you of that one. But I love the spiritual aspect of Danielle Hitchen’s books to bring in the spiritual part of it as well. Her book on counting is called First Bible Basics, and it goes one through ten.

And then there are a few different series of books on math that are just really wonderful. And one is The Little Elephants Big Adventures Series written by Angela M Isaacs and illustrated by Matt Dye. And the book I have is Picnic with Some Peanuts. And as you go through the story, these two elephants are having a picnic and the ants come and try to take the food. And, well, they do take the food, and it’s just a very cute book, very cute story. But throughout the story, the children are doing math, and this is created with the Purdue Early Achievement Research Labs. And so it is based on research. It is based on the science of how our brains work and how math works with little children. And Angela is the one who designed my website, and she has several in this series available. The one I have is, like I said, Picnic with Some Peanuts. One is Just Enough Eggs. And the other one is Too Many Pillows. Let me read just a little bit of this, so you can get a feel for the kind of math that it’s presenting to your children. Oh, and the other part of it is, they have questions that you can go over. What they recommend is as you read the book, the first time you read it, you ask the red questions. The second time you read it, you ask the blue questions, third time, the purple questions. And then after the third reading, use any questions or make up your own. The thing is to keep the conversation going, to be flexible, and to have fun. So I really like that.

And so it starts out,

“‘I love picnics,’ said Benjamin.

‘I love picnics and books.’ Lucy took several books from her bag. Benjamin had fewer books. Bear had the fewest.” And then the questions on the page are–in the red: “What books do you like to read?” The second question for the second reading: “Who has fewer books than Lucy?” And if you look at the picture, you see that Lucy has 10 books and Benjamin has five books and bear has two books. So the children can count the books quite easily in the picture and can tell who has the fewest. And then the third question for the third reading: “Lucy, Benjamin, and bear brought several peanuts and some apples. What would you bring on a picnic?” So I love that it opens up conversations about all kinds of things and not just doing the math. And then the next page says, “‘I love picnics and books too,’ said, Benjamin, ‘but I love peanuts the most of all.’ Benjamin took all the peanuts.” And then the questions are– “Who has fewer peanuts than Benjamin?” And of course the answer is both Lucy and bear. “Does Benjamin have a few or a lot of peanuts?” And then the third question, “How can they share Benjamin’s peanuts fairly?” So that would be an interesting question. And so then on the next page, they’ve divided them up more fairly, and pretty soon the ants come and start taking things away. And they’re trying to figure things out what’s going on. And they have some apples and some lemonade. While they’re reading their books, the ants come and take away the peanuts. This book is well-written and children will enjoy the story as well as the math.

Another book along the same lines, as far as a story with math is Storytelling Math. That’s the series, and this one is The Animals Would Not Sleep by Sara Levine and illustrated by Marta Alvarez Miguens. And this one, the little boy is supposed to be going to bed. And his mom says, you need to get ready for bed and clean up your room. And so he’s trying to put all his stuffed animals away, but they’re not cooperating. And so he thinks of different ways to organize his animals. But now this book could be used for math or science or a combination of the two. It’s mostly about classifying and organizing things according to different characteristics, which is also a math skill, but it also deals with the science and classification of animals and classification of natural things in the world. And so it deals with the animals being divided by size, the animals being divided by whether they run or crawl or fly, the animals being divided up by the color of their fur or their feathers. And it’s just very cute. And he finally solves his problem of trying to get these animals to cooperate and to go to sleep. He solves the problem just in time when his mom comes back and says, you’ve got to go to sleep. And then the last picture shows him sleeping with all his little stuffed animals. The little boy in the story is Marco. And toward the end of the book, it says: “‘Two more minutes,’ Marco’s mother called. Marco had to think fast being a scientist. He was used to coming up with ideas and thinking outside the box. He dumped the animals back onto the floor. ‘Can’t I just sleep in your bed tonight,’ whined Birthday Bear. Yellow bear started crying for no reason at all. Everyone was getting cranky and time was running out.” And so then he, the next page, he solves the problem. At the end of the book, it has “Sorting in Science” and goes through how you can sort things and how you can do some different activities with your children. And then on the other page, in the back of the book, it talks about exploring the math and then it gives you several ideas for trying some activities with your children. And then they also have a web address where you can find even more activities to do.

And there are several books in this series. There are board books that deal with measurement, geometry, spatial sense, and sharing equally. And these are by Grace Lin. There’s another one called Lia & Luis: Who Has More, and that’s on measurements. And it is written by Ana Crespo illustrated by Giovana Madeiros. And so these books are available. You also have diversity, you have different ethnicities in each book. And so it’s kind of neat to open up different conversations with your children. There is a free workshop coming up that is featuring these books and these writers. And I will have the link to that in the show notes it’s in September. So you have plenty of time to sign up and join that if you are interested in that.

And then one more math book I want to share with you is Pigeon Math by Asia Citro illustrated by Richard Watson. And this is a funny book. The narrator is the storyteller, and he’s trying to tell the story, and it starts out: “One bright and sunny morning ten pigeons–” but all these bugs fly by and the pigeons are like, “Ooh, lunch.” And so they start flying around catching the bugs. And so the storyteller says, “Hey, wait!” As all the pigeons are flying away. And he says, “Well, they’re gone. Okay, let’s try that again.” Then he says, “Um, 10 minus 6 is,” and you turn the page. And of course it says “four.” So hopefully your children will figure that before you turn the page and can throw out the answer. “Four, as I was saying, one bright and sunny morning for pigeons,” and then they get distracted because they’re hungry and everything. And he’s like, “Oh, bother. So four plus four is” because four more pigeons come back. And then it turns the page: “Eight. One bright and–I mean,” and so now the clouds have come in, it’s starting to look stormy. So he has to change his story. “I mean, one gray and cloudy morning, eight pigeons.” And then the pigeons of course don’t want to get rained on. So they fly away except for a couple of them. “Honestly, pigeons,” and he sighs. “Let’s see, eight minus six is,” and on each page too, they show the equation, so the child can get used to seeing how to notate eight minus six. So they get used to both the verbiage as well as seeing the equation. Okay. And then of course the answer is two. And anyway, it’s just a super cute story and a lot of fun. And I think children will have a lot of fun with it.

Okay. One of the things I would like to recommend from when I was teaching school and also when I was homeschooling there’s this math program called Touch Math. And even if you don’t use their whole curriculum, just having the bookmarks or the posters that show the dots on the numbers can help make the Arabic numbers we use in math concrete for a beginning learner. And so I highly recommend their program for children who are having trouble with math, or they’re more hands-on and need to do tactile activities to really get things, or they need it more concrete because math can be very abstract, especially when you’re dealing with numbers representing how many things. And so for some children, that is a really difficult activity, a really difficult shift, to go from concrete thinking to abstract thinking, but letters and numbers are abstract for the concrete number of things or the concrete sounds we make. So we have to help some children especially to cross that bridge. And this is one of the programs that I think is really good for doing that.

If you have children with learning disabilities and also even with some dysgraphia or dyslexia, if they flip their numbers, these posters and these cards they can trace with their finger. And I have a great method for helping children who have trouble with writing and with flipping numbers and letters. And so I’ll try to explain that. Maybe I’ll do a video to help explain that, but I was taught this method from a special ed teacher, and it was phenomenal when I used it in my classroom. It was amazing.

There are a few books I want to share with you that are biographical and about different mathematicians that have changed our world. One of my favorites is called Nothing Stopped Sophie by Cheryl Bardo and illustrated by Barbara McClintock. This story is fantastic. It’s called Nothing Stopped Sophie: The Story of Unshakable Mathematician, Sophie Germain, and it tells her story. She lived in the late 1800’s. And so women were not allowed to be mathematicians. I mean, they were either teachers, moms, you know, they didn’t get to be mathematicians and scientists and all of that. So she was stopped at every turn, and she did whatever she could to learn and to practice her math and even pretending to be a man; she wrote letters under a man’s name so that they would take her seriously. But she solved a problem that no one else seemed to be able to solve. And it mostly had to do with sound frequencies that we still use to this day in planning buildings and architecture in our culture. Because of what she figured out, they were able to build the Eiffel Tower, and we are able to build skyscrapers. So it’s a pretty remarkable story, and she was a pretty remarkable woman to not give up in the face of constant discouragement and people just ignoring her and not allowing her to share what she was learning. So I love this book. I think it’s fantastic.

Another one is The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdos by Deborah Heiligman and illustrated by LeUyen Pham. Oh, I am so sorry. All these names. I’m sure I don’t pronounce them right. But you’ll have the link in the show notes, so you can go right to the book. But with what he figured out, first of all, he, the way the book depicts him, I would think he probably had mild autism. He had a really hard time with just normal everyday life activities. And his mom took care of him, and he just was all about numbers and all about math. And he could do math in his head just in a matter of seconds. You know, he was just amazing, brilliant, kind of a savant type of child. He helped connect mathematicians around the world. They actually say in the book, he’s like a math matchmaker, but he connected mathematicians from all over the world, which then allowed them to collaborate together and solve more math problems. And so it’s really wonderful–his story. He was a very unique man. He loved people, but he loved math. And he just was very interesting. The story is really well-written and fun to read.

And then another one I really enjoyed was Counting On Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13. And this one is by Helaine Becker and illustrated by Dow Phumiruk. And this book tells her story and there are some others that accompany me as well. One is Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly and The Girl with a Mind for Math: The Story of Ray Montague, Amazing Scientists Three by Julia Finley Mosca. And these, of course, are kind of all along the same lines, but I really like Counting on Katherine. She figured out math so much so that some of the astronauts would not go on the rockets until they knew she had looked over the computer’s figures and confirmed that the computer had figured out the formula correctly. So she was an absolutely amazing mathematician. And so I really love this book. It’s very, well-written. This particular book is written for a little bit older elementary child and is very detailed, but I really preferred the one, A Computer Called Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Helped Put America on the Moon. And this one was written by Suzanne Slade and the illustrator is Veronica Miller Jamison. I enjoyed the story just a little bit more in this particular one. And it tells the same story of how she solved equations in her mind and was it’s really just life-changing for the space program in America. Either one of these books tell her story beautifully, but my personal preference was this second one by Suzanne Slade.

One of the reasons I loved math personally was because I thought of it as solving puzzles. And so if we can help our children see an equation as not just an equation, but that it is a puzzle to be solved and make math more fun that way, then maybe they won’t have as many complaints if they’re not gifted in math.

So we will continue this series throughout this month and going into September, as we talk about different picture books and other tools and resources available to parents to help their children in the different subject areas as we look at going back to school.

For our devotional today, I thought I would read from How Great Is Our God: Indescribable Kids. And this is devotional number 92. Part of math is learning to tell time. And this is more geared toward the science of telling time, but it is a really good devotional. And it’s called, “What Time Is It?” In Isaiah 38:7-8 in the NIV it says, “This is the Lord’s sign to you that the Lord will do what he has promised. I will make the shadow cast by the sun go back the 10 steps it has gone down on the stairway of Ahaz.”

“When you want to know what time it is, do you look at a clock or a watch or maybe a phone? Well, ancient Egyptians didn’t have any of those things. So they invented the sundial about 3,500 years before Jesus was born. It was the first time-telling instrument, and people still use sundials today. They work by using the shadows cast by the sun. The flat part of a sundial called the dial plate has marks on it for each hour of sunlight. A piece called the gnomon sticks up from the dial plate. The sun’s rays hit the gnomon and cast a shadow on one of the marks on the dial plate. That mark tells you what time it is. As the sun moves, the shadow moves. So you always know the time.” And then for the “How Great:” “The Vrihat Samrat Yantra (which means ‘the great king of instruments’) in Jaipur. India is the world’s largest sundial. Built in 1738, it is almost 90 feet tall and is accurate to within two seconds. The shadow moves about one millimeter or about the thickness of a dime every second, because the earth always moves around the sun in the same direction, a shadow on or off a sundial always moves in the same direction. Well, not always. There was one time when it didn’t. Second Kings 20 tells the story of when good king Hezekiah was very sick. He wept and prayed and begged God to heal him. At last, God said Hezekiah would live for 15 more years, but Hezekiah asked for a sign to prove this would really happen. A great stairway stood nearby, and the Lord made the shadow climb backward 10 steps. Then Hezekiah knew he had been given a promise from God. Only our great God could make a shadow go backward.” And then the prayer for today, “Lord, you are amazing. Not only did you make the sun and the shadows, but you can make them go backward only. You can do something that great.”

Thank you for joining us for “Books that Spark,” a podcast, celebrating books that spark imagination, emotion, questions, and discussions as we disciple our children and help them follow Christ with their whole hearts.

Your Host:

Terrie Hellard-Brown writes and speaks to help children and adults find God’s purpose and plan for their lives. She teaches workshops and writes devotional books, children’s stories, and Christian education materials.

Her podcast, Books that Spark, reviews children’s books that spark imagination, emotion, questions, and discussion leading to teachable moments with our kids. Her podcast posts each Tuesday morning.

Her blog posts are published each Thursday and discuss living as a disciple of Christ while discipling our children. She challenges us to step out of our comfort zones to walk by faith in obedience to Christ.

For more information, visit her website at terriehellardbrown.com

Terrie uses her experiences as a mother of four (three on “the spectrum”), 37 years in ministry (15 in Taiwan), and 32 years teaching to speak to the hearts of readers.

Her motto is “Growing older is inevitable; growing up is optional” and keeps her childlike joy by writing children’s stories, delighting over pink dolphins, and frequently laughing till it hurts.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *