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Content to Help You Guide Children Through Their Math Education

One Book, Three Ways: Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes

December 12, 2020

Using literature in math has many benefits: introducing or highlighting a concept, stimulating discussion, offering meaningful context, and providing visual aids. But something else that is great about using books to teach math is the inherent flexibility of the stories. Books can be used to help teach multiple concepts for several different age groups, depending on what your child needs. To show this adaptability of books, several teachers from around the country share below how they use Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes in their own classrooms to support learners of different ages.


Frances Rowe, Madison, Wisconsin

Mrs. Rowe has been teaching young children for over 30 years, working with both Pre-K and Kindergarten throughout the Midwest.

After reading the book together at the carpet, we pull out our bin of snap cubes. Each child first counts how many letters are in their first name, often using their fingers to keep track (a great strategy!). Once they can tell me the number of letters in their name, they then take the cubes and use them to create a train with an amount that corresponds with the number of letters in their name.

We lay our “name trains” in front of us and practice comparing, first just comparing two children’s trains. “Which child has more letters in their name? How do you know? Can you tell me how many more letters she has?”

To compare the whole class, we then line up all of our trains from shortest to longest, again comparing what we see. “Raise your hand if you have the shortest train; how many letters are in your name? Raise your hand if you have the longest train; how many letters are in your name? Raise your hand if your train is longer than five cubes. Raise your hand if your train is shorter than seven cubes.”

With our trains all lined up in front of us, we then estimate the total number of cubes, or name letters, in the class. We keep track of their estimates by writing them down on some chart paper at the carpet so they can see everyone’s estimates, and check in with the estimates as we count. Our final task is to count the cubes. We do this by creating groups of ten with the cubes, and then counting by tens together. And finally, we look at our estimates again, discussing which estimates were less than the total and which estimates were more than the total— even more comparing practice!

Second grade:

-Rob Dunleavy, Bend, Oregon

Rob is now in his fifth year of teaching second grade, and wouldn’t trade it for any other grade.

After reading Chrysanthemum, I have the kids each estimate the number of letters in all of our first names in the class. Second graders really like to be correct, so estimating can be tricky for them since they tend to understand it as getting as close as possible to the correct answer, or at least being the closest of all their friends. So, in this case, I give them a time limit of only 20 seconds to come up with an estimate. Otherwise, I would have a class full of children all trying to add up everyone’s names in their heads. I keep track of everyone’s estimates on the board.

Then, I give each student a post-it note, on which they write the number of letters in their name. Everyone sticks their post-it notes on the board next to our list of estimates. I then have everyone estimate again (also timed). We discuss how our first estimates were based on only a bit of information- the number of letters in our own name. But now we have more information- the number of letters in everyone’s names- to help us make a better estimate. This is a great time to discuss the difference between a guess and an estimate; guesses are “wild” and estimates are based on information.

The kids now have the opportunity to add up all of the names and compare the total to their estimate. Each kid gets paper and a pencil and they’re free to use any addition strategies to find the sum. Once everyone has found the total, we share out the strategies that they used. This could include finding doubles, finding groups of ten, or just adding a few numbers at a time.

While students are encouraged to use the strategies that work for them, we are also working toward efficiency. So, in their next task that’s exactly what we want them to think about. Each child gets a copy of a page of Chrysanthemum, the one with pictures of each child in the class with their names on it. The kids then cut out the pictures and arrange them in a way that makes it efficient for them to add up all of the letters in their names. While often kids decide on their own to write the number of letters in each character’s name on the picture, it can be helpful to remind them that this can make ordering a bit quicker. Once kids find the total number of letters using their efficient strategies, we share out and compare the different strategies. Sharing out can be really helpful for the struggling learners as well, since it allows them to see the different possibilities when they are maybe feeling a bit stuck.

Third grade:

-Celeste Sole, Washington, DC

After spending time teaching first grade and eighth grade, both in Texas, Celeste moved to DC and has been teaching third grade for 18 years.

After reading Chrysanthemum aloud to the class, each child gets a post-it note and writes down the number of letters in their first name, then places it on the white board. Using these post-its, we together create a line plot using this data. The post-its are great since we can move them around easily and they are all the same size, making it easier to compare the data. And since it’s on the white board, the kids can write in the labels and title– important elements for displaying data!

Once we have our line plot completed, we then find the data landmarks. In third grade, we cover minimum, maximum, range, mode, and median. The first four are relatively easy for them to understand and find (especially mode, since here it’s just the tallest “tower” on the line plot). However, finding the median often trips them up. But once again, the post-its come in handy, since now we can move them into a straight line from smallest to largest and simply remove post-its from either end until we reach our middle number, or post-it.

We go through this same process with the number of letters in their last names, keeping our data from our first names up on the board. This allows us to practice comparing data and starting to understand what the data landmarks really mean and why it is useful to find them.

To take it up a notch, our next task with their names is to find the “value” of their names. We assign a dollar value to each letter of the alphabet, with A equal to $1, B equal to $2, and so on. The students use these values to find the total dollar value of their first names. This is excellent practice for mental math and using addition strategies (doubles, making friendly numbers, using open number lines, etc.), as well as a little practice with organizing their work. While a line plot with their name values is not particularly helpful for displaying the data, we do find several data landmarks to help give them a sense of the class data and where they fall within that data set, including minimum, maximum, range, and median.


This is only one example of the flexibility you will find in children’s literature; there are many books out there that can be used in multiple ways and easily adapted to your child. Check out the BookSmart Math books page to find a book that’s right for your child. And feel free to share in the comments how you used it to support your child’s learning!

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