Pirate Treasure and Paper Bags: Storytelling in Maths

In my first year of teaching I was sent to a maths PD with Michael Ymer and he stressed that much of maths can be taught through storytelling. I think (but I’m stretching back a bit) that his main reasons for this were 1) It’s super engaging for students, 2) It allows for lots of incidental learning.

This has stuck with me big time. It’s something that seems simple but when it’s not a focus, it can sometimes drop off. This term I’ve started teaching division to my grade 2s. This has the potential to get dry very quickly by way of “There are xx chickens and xx henhouses etc boring boring!” So, I focused on trying to integrate some storytelling into my lessons.

Here is the story I told on day one.


I have something here to show you all today. In my hands I’m holding a wrapped up package which has a mysterious-looking pot inside it. On the holidays I did something special. I went to the airport, got on a plane and travelled to a little island in the middle of the ocean. The island was so tiny I had to travel on a seaplane to be able to land. I swam up to the beautiful, white, sandy beach and crept into the jungle. Interest is mounting and students are shushing each other to hear what happens next. It was very hot in the jungle and insects were buzzing around me. I thought it couldn’t get any hotter when suddenly I came to a beautiful pool of water at the bottom of an enormous waterfall. I swam under the waterfall and found myself in a cave of blue, clear water. At this point, students are bursting to know where this is going and what it has to do with maths. I keep them going a bit longer. I peered into the water and noticed something sparkling. I reached down and picked up… this! I reach into the pot and dramatically pull out a gem that I got in a bag of a billion plastic gems for $2 at The Reject Shop once. I look again and find this many more.  I pull them out and we count them to find 20. I was so excited that I went straight home and showed my mum. Do you know what she said? She said “Could I have some of your beautiful gems?”. Of course I told her she could so we decided to share them equally, so it would be fair. We then get into the maths! We discuss how to share and have all those lovely conversations to elicit their prior knowledge about what it means to share. But do you know what happened next? My brother and sister came in and do you know what they said? They said “Could we have some of your beautiful gems?”. Off we go, sharing between four people. But do you know what happened next? By this point, they know Dad’s about to walk in and demand some beautiful gems so I let them take over. We continue adding people until eventually Lucy the cat walks in and says “mioaw” and it’s all over.


From there, all the kids need is a handful of gems and some bears to act as family members and they are good to go! There is some debate over whether the story is real or not (and how much they could sell the gems for) but for the most part they just want to be part of this imaginative story that seems too good to be true. They are more than happy to tell exactly the same story to their partner as if it were their own, and practice sharing their gems between their little bear families.

They have now practiced efficient methods of counting, equal shares, dividing an amount between various numbers of people, as well as beginning to use sharing language.  Too easy.


Day two was party bags.

I told them they were having a little party with xx people coming. They drew that many people/groups on their paper bag (read “lolly bag”). There’s something magic in being able to dream up any lolly you’d like. Yellow unifix became the most enticing bananas, the white ones were marshmallows, while things formally known as pencils became the highly sought-after lollipops. Students would roll to find out how many lollies altogether, collect that many and then share, and draw to record. We even delved into remainders on the second day of the topic.

Having a story as a premise for a maths lesson is a simple way to engage students but is really effective! It encourages a lot more discussion, language use and reasoning because students all want to be part of the story, and will reason with each other to get it right. It also makes the concept less abstract than just using numbers; students are able to apply the concept to a situation they understand and care about. It’s also just really fun!

4 thoughts on “Pirate Treasure and Paper Bags: Storytelling in Maths

  1. I loved reading this. Well done. I am now re-reading and trying to think how to scale up the maths a bit for my Grade 4’s… I will find a way to use BOTH of these story ideas if I can. Thanks for sharing!


  2. Hello Emily..
    I just read your article as an assigned task for an online class. Twitter is a new adventure and I hope it’ll be kind and educational for me. I already heard it’s fun…. let’s see. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences as a twitter newbie like me. I guess here goes nothing but I hope it’s sweet!!!



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s