Three times a week, I volunteer during “math stations” in a first-grade classroom. For half an hour every day, small groups of first-graders use manipulatives (like poker chips and little plastic jelly beans) to practice their math skills. The volunteer is mostly there to make sure that the kids don’t stick the jelly beans up their noses or poke each other’s eyes out with their pencils. Sometimes we also help the students spell math words, or read them “math stories.”
This week’s “Jellybean Monster” activity involved reading math stories to the kids: “The Jellybean Monster had twenty jelly beans in his cabinet. He got so hungry that he ate seventeen of them. How many were left?” The students, using plastic jelly beans to help them visualize the problem and solution, would write “20 – 17 = 3” and “20 – 3 = 17” on their worksheets.
On Tuesday, the teacher handed me the activity folder and said, “I haven’t finished writing the Jellybean Monster stories, so there’s no script. But you’ve been doing this all year – you won’t have any trouble making up the math stories.”
I’m supposed to be a writer. Given five minutes’ prep time, I should be able to make up a few math stories about a silly purple monster, no problem.
My high school speech teacher could have predicted the outcome. When he taught the unit on impromptu speaking, I stank. I um’ed and ah’ed my way through ad lib presentations on “Who Shot J.R.?” and “Jimmy Carter and the Killer Rabbit” and earned the worst grades I got in that class all year. This Tuesday afternoon, when I looked down at five little faces alight with eagerness to hear a jellybean monster story, my mind went blank.
I um’ed and ah’ed through the session. The Jellybean Monster went to his cupboard to eat fifteen times. He went to the grocery store and bought more jelly beans when he ran low. He had little snacks and big meals and an occasional stomachache. The kids twitched, rolled their eyes, and finished in seventeen minutes flat. “We’re done, Ms. Bell! Can we have snack time now?”
Yesterday I was determined to improve. The Jellybean Monster chased the Easter Bunny around town and tried to steal his jelly beans. Every time they met, the Easter Bunny narrowly escaped. The kids stayed with the story. They raised their hands and called out predictions about the story’s ending. They wrote their subtraction sentences quickly and demanded the next episode. When the Jellybean Monster finally cornered the Easter Bunny in the candy aisle of Safeway, the students gasped. When the Easter Bunny gave the Jellybean Monster his very own Easter basket, they exclaimed in satisfaction. When the Jellybean Monster found twenty jelly beans in it and gobbled them ALL up, they sighed with delight.
Those kids weren’t excited over subtraction sentences, trust me. They were just into the story.
I love getting into a story, too.
So for the next year, I’m going on a reading quest. I’ll be searching for something as elusive and perhaps as imaginary as the Easter Bunny – that mysterious something that defines for one reader (me) a good short story. Like the Jellybean Monster, I hope to find multicolored gems of story-candy, as smooth and sweetly delicious as a handful of purloined jelly beans. This blog will be the story of that quest.
You’re welcome to come along. Thanks for visiting!