Most of the books on my regular read aloud rotation have some specific source – maybe they were childhood favorites of my own, or books that were passed on to me by colleagues, or stories I sought out after reading a good review. Math Rashes is different … so different that I can’t even really remember where I found it (a price tag on the front suggests it may have been a remaindered book from my favorite book store, but I have no memory of buying it). I would consider this book a bit of a diamond in the rough, but one that has become a Must Read at the beginning of the school year. I usually save one particular story to read later in the year (right before our recorder concert), so this week the class and I got back to the world of W.T. Melon Elementary School for the final story in the collection. As I read, I was reminded of two things. First, every third grade classroom in the country should have this book. (Just my humble opinion.) And secondly, there’s something magical about the chemistry of a book and a group of people, whether that group is a classroom or a family, something that can only happen when you share a truly great story.
Math Rashes (written by Douglas Evans, pictures by Larry Di Fiori) is a collection of short stories about a class of third graders at the W.T. Melon School. Each story focuses on a different child in the class, and each child has a particular personality quirk or minor character flaw … nothing too serious, but all very, very familiar to anyone who has spent time with third graders. (It’s no surprise that the author has experience as a teacher and great connections for teacher on his website.) When I read this book, I often have to pause to ask, “Naming no names, does anyone know someone who acts like this character in this book?” Typically ALL the hands in the class go up. There’s Morgan, who chatters on and on endlessly and can’t figure out why her friends don’t want to spend time with her. There’s George, who never quite listens to all the directions. There’s Mimi, who can never seem to find a pencil when she needs one. In each story, some magical intervention leads to the student learning a lesson. For example, Andrew’s constant doodling means that he has to stay inside to finish the work he didn’t have time to do. At first, he’s delighted when his doodles come to life and offer to complete his work for him. But when the doodles start drawing other doodles and jumping to other students’ desks to do their work, it takes some fast work with an eraser to save the day.
The format of this book is very similar to the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle stories: child has a problem, magic intervenes, child fixes the problem. I personally loved the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books when I was growing up and would still recommend them today, but I think Math Rashes is a better fit for a classroom. The problems Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle solved seemed a bit like parent-identified problems (not wanting to go to bed, eating slowly), and I was always a little mystified by how completely helpless the children’s parents were. I think one of the reasons my students love the stories in Math Rashes is not just that they identify with the characters, but that they identify with the friends of the characters. Most students can see why having a “chatterbox” for a friend could be annoying. A friend who doesn’t want to go to bed, or who eats dinner too slowly? Not so much.
So what is it that elevates this book to the realm of Must Read? Well, it’s not so much what happens while we read the story … it’s what happens afterwards. Maybe it’s something about the familiarity of the setting or the “third-grade-ness” of the stories, but the characters and incidents in this book find a way of working themselves into our classroom culture. Children will use them as a common reference, a part of our classroom language. For example, in the story “The Pencil Loser,” Mimi is constantly missing her pencils, which she leaves all over the classroom. She discovers that a tiny pencil-shaped creature called Ti-2 (short for Ticonderoga Number 2) is delighted by her bad habit, because it gives him a chance to collect the lost pencils, grind them into shavings, and sell the shavings to the chefs of Pennsylvania to use in their recipes. Pencil losing is a persistent problem in the classroom. Reading this story doesn’t exactly cure us of our curse, but it paints it in a different light. “Look out! Ti-2 will get that!” students will squeal as they scoop a pencil off the floor, repeating his catch phrase, “What I find, I grind!” After reading about Andrew and his doodling problem, children may continue to doodle … but my reminders about erasing doodles in the margins are usually met with giggles and comments like, “Remember what happened to Andrew!” In fact, students start to use the names of the characters as if they were classmates (a practice that can get confusing when they share first names with real classmates!).
The important thing is that these references are spontaneous; they come out of a real sense that these stories belong to us in a shared way. I suspect that if I drove the conversation (say, by making a poster of Ti-2 or bringing his name up in a scolding way) the power of that ownership would be lost. It’s only with a real sense of connection that the stories we read can become a shared experience, just like memories of a field trip or funny anecdotes from our year together. Dr. Michael Schiro writes about the power of those shared stories in his work on oral storytelling in the classroom, and I see it through certain read alouds as well. When a book becomes such a point of connection that the characters in it feel like members of the class … I would say that book qualifies as a Must Read. Even if it came from the remainder bin.