Teaching the Common Core with pumpkins

An interesting article by Kalyn Belsha in the Aurora (Ill.) Beacon-News describes how teachers in several far-western suburbs were incorporating pumpkins and other fall potpourri into their lesson plans. It’s entitled “Falling for Education.” Awesome!

For starters, you can use pumpkins to teach the plant life cycle, which is part of the Next Generation Science Standards as early as third grade:

Develop models to describe that organisms have unique and diverse life cycles but all have in common birth, growth, reproduction, and death. [Clarification Statement: Changes organisms go through during their life form a pattern.] [Assessment Boundary: Assessment of plant life cycles is limited to those of flowering plants. Assessment does not include details of human reproduction.]

Well, ignoring the assessment boundary is going to have to do, since assessments haven’t been developed yet, and Illinois hasn’t officially adopted the NGSS at this point. That’s OK, because there are several other ways to use pumpkins to teach standards in the Common Core, which Illinois has adopted.

For example, since one of the great hallmarks of the Common Core is that it encourages cross-disciplinary thinking, especially in the younger grades, we can explore some pumpkins that have been grown locally. Starting in kindergarten through about second grade (according to the reading level), have students read the book How Many Seeds in a Pumpkin by Margaret McNamara (Amazon).

This story teaches math concepts like counting (1.NBT.A.1) and skip counting (2.NBT.A.2) and science concepts while modeling kindness and empathy. The main character, Mr Tiffin, brings three pumpkins into class for a math and science lesson. All the children guess how many seeds are inside. Charlie, the smallest kid in class, says all the best guesses are taken and feels frustrated. Then the class opens the pumpkins and counts the seeds. In addition to counting by 2s, 5s, and 10s, Mr Tiffin introduces students to some strategies for guessing the number of seeds based on the number of lines on the pumpkin, a guessing strategy that was news to me when I first saw this book.

“When they see a pumpkin, they just think of a jack-o-lantern,” the Beacon-News quoted one preschool teacher at Longwood Elementary in Naperville as saying. “A lot of them have never opened a pumpkin and seen what’s inside.”

In addition to counting and studying the plant life cycle, older students will be able to explore math concepts like circumference and the relationship between circumference and weight or between the number of lines and the number of seeds.

This will still take some planning

A few points: First, make sure the seeds can be left out on some newspaper to dry overnight. They might be too slimy right when students cut them out of the pumpkins. Second, if you want to carry this lesson even further, go ahead and roast the pumpkin seeds so students can enjoy the taste of their hard work on counting principles. If, by chance, students drive by pumpkin fields on the way to school, there’s even more of an opportunity for parents to reinforce the lessons—or at least talk about them—with your students. A recipe for roasting pumpkin seeds is available here.

But above all, take the opportunity to work on the new Common Core standards, as well as social-emotional intelligence. At East Aurora’s Allen Elementary, for instance, all the kindergarten classes got together to do a pumpkin lesson filled with math, science, and literacy concepts, the paper noted.

“Even on the fun days we still include the standards that we need to be teaching them,” one bilingual kindergarten teacher was quoted as saying.

As you approach the algebra topics, moving toward middle school, it’s even possible to use pumpkins: just graph the number of seeds against the circumference or the number of lines and look for any correlation. See 8.SP.A.1: Construct and interpret scatter plots for bivariate measurement data to investigate patterns of association between two quantities. Describe patterns such as clustering, outliers, positive or negative association, linear association, and nonlinear association. You can still roast the seeds when you’re done, since I imagine eighth graders enjoy roasted pumpkin seeds as much as first graders.

Other books about pumpkins

For additional reading or to get ideas for class lessons that align to the English language arts standards in the Common Core, let me recommend the following:

  • Pumpkin Circle by George Levenson
  • Too Many Pumpkins by Linda White
  • When the Frost is on the Pumpkins by James Riley
  • The Very Best Pumpkin by Mark Moulton and Karen Good

These might assist you with English language arts standards RI.K.5, RI.K.6, and especially RI.K.8 and W.K.8 if parents help (all for kindergarten), and obviously S.1.2 for first grade. Probably a few others could be added to the list as well, so check it out. Happy Halloween!

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more biographical information, see the About page.