Looking at Math Through Chicken Eyes by Ann Marie Stephens
It’s no secret that I don’t really care for math. However, it wasn’t always that way. As a kid, I liked studying about coins and then shopping with them at the Woolworths near my house. When I mastered tellingtime I could use the TV guide to find a show and know how many minutes until my flute lesson. (I realize my references age me, but we won’t worry about that kind of math here!) I always did well in the subject—until I didn’t. Looking back as an adult, I know why. As soon as it seemed irrelevant to my daily life or future, it stopped making sense. Confusion = brain shutting down. At least for me.
I recently retired as an elementary teacher after 31 years. At my school, when you teach first grade, you instruct all subjects. I remember not being eager to teach math. I figured I’d have to feign excitement in order for my students to learn effectively. Fortunately, my creativity kicked in, and before I knew it, I’d embedded song, dance, literature, writing, food, and artinto math. I was doing what I had needed as a kid and it turns out my students needed it too. One spring, we made construction paper chicks. We generated addition problems on paper and hung the whole display in the hallway. I always liked a good title so I dubbed our creations, “Arithmetic Chicks.” The writer in me knew that had potential. (Obviously, I wrote the idea down for future use.) Three years later, I heard the cheeps of chicks trying to get out of my head and onto paper. The Arithmechicks hatched! “10 chicks head off to play, count their happy beaks.”
Math may not give me the warm fuzzies, but Jia Liu’s illustrations of the chicks do! We all know a picture book is just words, until the illustrator works their magic. Jia swooped in and made characters that live and love like kids. She captured their successes, frustrations, joys, and confusion. She chose eye-catching colors and created expressions young readers can understand. A guy named Larry Martinek once said, “Children don’t hate math. What they hate is being confused, intimidated, and embarrassed by math. With understanding comes passion, and with passion comes growth—a treasure is unlocked.” My storytelling, enriched with Jia’s gentle and truthful art, is meant to spark a passion for math.
Each of the six books serves as both introduction to and reinforcement of early math skills. The plotlines are relatable and full of action. The Arithmechicks explore math in their coop, the park, the beach, a fair, the mountains, and a big city. They tackle necessary themes such as bedtime, exclusion, loss, insecurity, and everyday challenges of being young and inexperienced. Then there’s Mouse who becomes a friend in ARITHMECHICKS ADD UP, and in subsequent titles, assumes the role of an adopted sibling or at least that BFF who seems to go everywhere with your family. Mouse is loved and accepted and not at all intimidated by math.
My hope is that educators will invite the Arithmechicks into their curriculum and classrooms. That parents and guardians will make room in their homes. The chicks, Mama, Mouse, and a cast of supporting characters provide a safe space to approach, absorb, and apply math. “They know pieces will always fall into place, as long as they have each other.” The Arithmechicks have your back too.
When math is modeled, when kids can be hands-on andmake discoveries in whatever setting they’re in, real learning happens. The Arithmechicks are just like kids, but with feathers. They want to be happy and exploretheir world. They want to find forgiveness when they make mistakes and they want to celebrate their wins, all while conquering a subject that can be both baffling and rewarding. “10 chicks and 1 mouse take a train to the city.” Hop on board, we’ll save you a seat.
Ann Marie Stephens is a former award-winning elementary teacher and mentor with over 30 years in the classroom. While teaching, she received several grants for her inventive literacy projects. She’s taught dozens of original writing and education-based workshops, and is a seasoned presenter for both children and adults. Now she is a full-time picture book author of the ARITHMECHICKS books, the CATASTROPHE books, and upcoming titles in both series. Ann Marie’s poetry and literacy work has been featured in Bon Appetit Magazine, Instructor Magazine, and on NPR. She was a contributing author for Kwame Alexander’s The Write Thing, and a co-writer for Scholastic’s Trait Crate Plus for third and fifth grade. She is a member of SCBWI and is represented by Emily Mitchell at Wernick & Pratt Agency. She can be found on Twitter and Instagram @AMStephens_ and at www.annmariestephensbooks.com