The Manipulative Whisperers: The model tells a story

If you listen carefully you will hear them. They sit motionless in every classroom, on top of desks, waiting to tell a story. Without the story they are nothing.  What’s most difficult is that you can’t speak for them because the manipulatives speak through children.

Having 5 and 8-year-old girls I am fully trained in the teaching pedagogy of Doc McStuffins. Her toys sit motionless on the floor and Doc magically brings them to life. I guess the same could be said for the manipulatives we use in our classrooms. For those of you not privy to the mystical world of Doc McStuffins, she fixes broken toys and teaches her friends how to play with them so they come to life. I want my students to make their manipulatives come to life and tell a story. I visited a kindergarten classroom to test the waters with the Cookie Monster. The task goes far beyond the kindergarten standard of sums through 10 but I wasn’t so much focused on right or wrong answers.  I was after the process.  I wanted to see how the students allowed their manipulatives to tell a story.

Act: 1

Students quickly went to the question, “how many cookies did the Cookie Monster eat?” They made their estimates and we were on our way.  I was quite surprised at how quickly students made it to this point.  I have lost lessons in the opening act before and had to pull the plug, but not today.

My thoughts on why: As I’ve began to create more 3-Act tasks in the primary grades I’ve learned that I need to really hone in on the question I want students to ask.  I need to make it bulletproof.  It’s not that I don’t want to honor their notice and wonders. It’s because I don’t want to be the one that introduces the “wonder” I’m after on any particular day. The first kindergarten task I created was Peas in a Pod, and although I thought it was good, students never got where I needed them to go without guidance. I want to guide as little as possible.  This is something I will forever be working towards and fine tuning.  

This blog has allowed me to capture my growth in terms of honing in on the main question. If you’re seeking to do the same, I suggest you jump on over to 101qs which is an amazing testing room for your ideas created by Dan Meyer.  The comments on his top-5 post were gold when I started out.  Thanks to all who commented because I have grown from your insight.

Back to the task…

Act 2: At first, students wanted to know how many cookies were left in the package so I showed this picture…

How many cookies left in the tray.

How many cookies left in the tray.

They started to model how many cookies were left in the tray but I began to notice something as they worked through the problem.

What I noticed about this model….


  • 4 rows of cookies
  • a couple of patterns (red/yellow on top and blue/green on the 2nd row)
  • rows 1&4 made from squares represent rows 1&3 in the cookie package.
  • rows 2&3 made from squares represent row 2 in the cookie package
  • she has 12 squares in rows 2&3 which is one more cookie than in row 2 in the tray (11)
  • she built her model on the paper which might have restricted her model and ability to count accurately


And this model….

  • I realized that the recording sheet said show your work which is why the models were built on the paper (easy fix for next time)
  • much cleaner model but lots of colors
  • quantities in each row were accurate
  • when he began to show how many were in the tray to begin with, he had a difficult time knowing which cookies were eaten and which ones were left
  • it was difficult to separate the two parts of the whole

And then this model… IMG_3858 This was the only student that organized her manipulatives purposefully through the use of color.  If you’ve never witnessed a kindergartener modeling mathematics, I welcome you into the world of beautiful chaos…

We found the Doc McStuffins of the class and we used her model to help “fix” the manipulatives going forward.

My takeaways:

  • Students need to explain how they model the problem. They need to publicly share, discuss, and evaluate the most efficient AND non-efficient models.   This is Mathematical Modeling and it starts in Kindergarten.
  • I’m glad I let the students choose their manipulative because it opened the door to SMP #6-Choosing Appropriate Tools Strategically. If I would have chose the manipulative, the meaningful conversations during closing would never of taken place.
  • The next time I visit the class we’ll open with the most efficient strategy used to solve the Cookie Monster. We’ll review and talk about the organization and purposeful use of the tools used.  Knowing that all students will immediately go to red/yellow counters when we dive into the next task, they won’t be available.  Instead, I’m interested to see if students will select 2 colors out of the variety of colors available with cubes, squares and such.  Opens the door to “Tell me why you chose these colors?”

On Sunday I read Dan Meyer’s recent article about mathematical modeling.  It’s jam up and a great framework for us all.  I’m wondering how the Cookie Monster and this lesson measure up and where I could have done better. Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 10.43.58 AM

About gfletchy

K-8 math consumer trying to listen and learn each day. Stay thirsty my friends!
This entry was posted in Making Math Accessible, Math Tools, Modeling, Patient Problem Solving, SMPs, Strategy Development, Teaching in a Context, Who Knows?, Word Problems and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to The Manipulative Whisperers: The model tells a story

  1. Kim Ballack says:

    After watching this you gave me the courage to try this 3act as is! At first I was going to modify using a package of Girl Scout cookies because the package has less cookies ( three rows of five cookies) so I thought they might use their counting by five skill set to help solve. But now realizing it is not so important to get the tight answer as it is to plan and figure a way to solve the problem: the process being the focus not so much the answer…. I will try as it is with my kindergarten class!
    Can’t wait to see how they do! If my lower group has trouble I may still modify and make my own Cookie Monster video! I am a huge fan of your 3 act lessons….keep them coming. I teach kindergarten in east Brunswick, New Jersey. Would love you to send me more acts as you make them!

    • gfletchy says:

      Wow Kim! I’m truly inspired by your courage to embrace the productive struggle. It’s a massive shift that many teachers never allow themselves to experience. I’d love to hear how it went.
      I’ve done the Cookie Monster with other kindergarten classes where I’ve had to give groups a specific row to solve. There’s a lot going on so I usually anticipate that I’m going to lose some kids along the way. In the end, we all come back and share at the closing to determine how many cookies were eaten in total.
      Thanks again for sharing. If you don’t mind I’d love to share your comment with some teachers in my district.
      PS. I removed you email but I have it saved. Just don’t want to see your email get hit up by the spammers:-) Take care and all the best!

      • Kim Ballack says:

        Have not tried it yet, but can’t wait! Will definitely share the experience when we do! Please feel free to share my comments!!!

  2. mathpetals says:

    @gfletchy I read this post after trying a new 3-Act task yesterday. Upon reflection, my big take away was that I had to let go of the question and wonderings that I had to allow my students to truly own the experience. We tried out “Bubble Gum House” by E. Brandenburg from 101qs. The trajectory of the children’s thinking led us into a conversation about 2.MD.A.2 (…two measurements relate to the size of the unit chosen.) Really great idea. I was amazed. I had no choice but to honor my student’s questions and wonders as I was shocked and realized that they found an authentic way to introduce a tricky measurement standard. It won’t always work in my favor so I appreciate what you said above. It needs to be bulletproof. Next time I won’t be so lucky. Here’s to more 3-Act tasks, thanks for the push!

    • gfletchy says:

      Somehow I completely missed your comment mathpetals…so sorry for the delayed response but thanks for chiming in. I love what E. Bradenburg has done on 101qs because she has taken lots of the 3-act tasks included in Georgia’s Frameworks and digitized them which is awesome.
      It’s a huge shift when we finally allow students to own the problem and love that you were able to make that transition. The more we are prepared, the more effective we’ll be in letting go. I’m totally loving how you “had no choice but to let go!” SWEET!
      Keep refining and redefining how to make it bulletproof:-) Thanks again for sharing such a thoughtful comment! I definitely appreciate your insight.

  3. Amy says:

    Thank you for your 3-Act-Tasks! I am a coach, and have been working with a wonderful first grade teacher who lets me come in to play with math in her class. We were nervous, but tried your graham cracker task and cookie monster task. They kids blew our minds! The pictures and video we captured of their thinking and their work will be such an asset to the other teachers in our district trainings as we continue to improve our math practices and teaching. Thank you for continuing to push us to trust the students, and the freedom to remove boundaries that get in the way of learning.

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