math teachermath teacher educatorparent/tutor

How Captain Underpants turned a Sorting Task into Saving the World

Surprised child
I was worried.

How would they handle the gravity of the task before them…

As I gazed into the eyes of the 20 kindergarteners in front of me, I played for them the message on my phone. They grinned in excitement as the message played and the math lesson began.

Hello, Dr. Amidon, this is Captain Underpants. TRA LA LAAAAAAAA! And I would really like you to sort the bin of objects I gave you. I need to know how many of each thing there are! Please! The world depends on it. TRA LA LAAAAAA!

Oh and Dr. Amidon, please get me the answers by lunch time. I need to save the world before lunch because I get hungry. TRA LA LAAAAAAA!

Let me back up.

I was given an opportunity to teach a lesson on sorting to my son’s kindergarten class. Looking up the standards for kindergarten I saw the standard for sorting was

Classify objects into given categories; count the numbers of objects in each category and sort the categories by count.

A pretty straight forward standard with many ways to go about sorting and counting objects according to some category. In preparation for the day my colleague gave me a bin full of colorful objects that consisted of teddy bears, dinosaurs, and fruit.

The previous day I had brainstormed with preservice teachers in my math methods class on ways to teach the lesson. Our ideas centered around getting the students to name their own categories for sorting. The categories we came up with for the objects was sorting by color, type (fruit, bear, dinosaur), plant or animal, even texture (some of the objects were hard plastic and others were made of rubber). Then it would be up to them to count the objects and we would combine the number of objects between groups of students. Basically, the task would be

How many of each group are there?

A Problem with the Problem

This is what I call a messy task because it is open ended. I won’t define for the students what makes up a group. And it will be up to the students to name the categories and then to group and count the objects with assistance from me for adding up all the different numbers.

What bothered me is motivation. Why are we doing this task? Enter Captain Underpants.

When in Doubt Save the World

My son loves Captain Underpants. I don’t know if it is the name or the silliness of the stories, but he wants to see the movies and check out the books (even though the books are way beyond his reading level). My guess is that there are more kindergarteners that share his love of Captain Underpants, especially given a movie starring the Captain was released this summer.

So being bothered by the lack of motivation I thought what if the world depended on these kids sorting these objects. That seems silly, but if you have ever seen or read Captain Underpants you understand that such a task could plausibly save the world in the Captain Underpants universe. So I recorded the message to provide a little motivation and focus to the task.

What Happened
Plan from Captain Underpants Sorting Lesson

I used the teacher-created table groups to make the task dependent on social interaction. Each child was responsible for sorting their pile of assorted objects into the piles of objects at their table. Then each child was responsible for counting (or recounting) one of the piles of objects. This involved a lot of counting and sharing of strategies for counting a messy pile of objects. Some lined up their objects and used their fingers to make sure they counted each object. Some slid each object as they counted, which is a more advanced way to count given they have to coordinate saying the word with sliding the object.

They first sorted by color and then by type (fruit, bears, or dinosaurs). We collected all the numbers of objects onto a single white board and then after we had all the numbers of objects from each of the groups we gathered on the carpet to add them up. It became a little tense at the end of class as we were using a hundreds chart to add up all the numbers for each of the groups. The teacher reminded me that Captain Underpants needed the numbers by lunch and lunch was five minutes away! We were able to finish and call Captain Underpants and report our findings. And, guess what, we saved the day!

In Reflection

In no way am I saying that this is a perfect lesson, or that the details I provided were all that is needed to enact the lesson. Honestly, I can think of a dozen ways that I would change it given my new knowledge of the classroom, the needs of the students, the standards, etc. For example, it would easy to incorporate recycling into this lesson to talk about how sorting can save the world. Or to use hundreds charts and crayons as a way to represent all the total number objects and each group based on color.

I share this lesson, not as an exemplar, but just as a reminder (to myself) that learning can be fun. And some of the best learning is fun (just listen to my kids while playing Minecraft). If we are to love others through the teaching and learning of mathematics, then there should be some fun, right?

Was it silly? Yes. Did it work? I don’t know. What I do know is that we sorted, we counted, we even added. Kids appeared to be excited and engaged. More importantly, they wanted to know if Captain Underpants would be calling again. I believe he will…

What are small things you do to create fun/engagement in your lessons?

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

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