Math Circular
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Math Circular

Rethinking Story Problems to Engage Students’ Mathematical Curiosity

The Arithmetiquities, an Adventurous Merging of Mathematics and Narrative

The heroes of The Arithmetiquities. Illustration by Robot Arms.

Reconsidering the Potential of Story Problems

“Story problems” have a bad reputation with students for a variety of reasons. Story problems frequently require a student to extract the relevant information and decide what to do with it, which makes them more challenging than exercises that are purely computational. Contrary to my students’ opinions, I see the opportunity for mathematical modeling as the true virtue of the story problem, especially in a world where technology can assist us with mechanics and computation.

Introducing The Arithmetiquities

My own attempt to merge mathematics and narrative has followed in Lewis Carroll’s footsteps. The Arithmetiquities is a serialized fantasy adventure tale told through thirty-six mathematical story problems. The story is a Lord of the Rings spoof, featuring a quirky team of adventurers who fan out across the land in their quest to find the Arithmetiquities, a collection of ancient mathemagical artifacts, such as the Sieve of Eratosthenes and the Roots of Unity.

Egga, Floora, and Greeta, the dwarven shieldmaidens of Lumparland. Illustration by Robot Arms.
Student and Teacher Reflections on The ArithmetiquitiesIt is a great way to share, be creative, and make math more fun. (Sixth grader)It makes math seem less boring and the stories help me understand the problem instead of just some equation. (Sixth grader)I’m always looking forward to the next chapter. I’m someone who likes to read, so the fact that a continuous adventure, with many heroic characters, was put into these math problems makes it even more fun! (Sixth grader)I like how it's not just like typical equations, it makes me think about different things and stretch myself. I also like how you can follow the characters through the different chapters. (Seventh grader)They have a fun little twist to them and more detail. It’s not like, “Sally had 3 apples,” but instead there are chapters that all come together and are actually fun for kids. (Seventh grader)Having the problems be in a story form with characters and stories you can follow, is helpful for me and also helps me get more creative with how I solve things. (Seventh grader)My students LOVE Dennis. I’m not sure why this was the character that grabbed my 7th grade class’s attention this year, but every Friday when we tackle a new chapter of The Arithmetiquities, they are eager to see if Dennis is involved in that week’s adventures. Dennis has even made it into other math problems because my students are so invested in him! (Seventh grade teacher)
Dennis, the halfling of Mudpatch. Illustration by Robot Arms.

Creating Narrative Settings in a Math Circle

Many chapters in The Arithmetiquities are suitable for discussion at a Mathematics Circle for students or teachers. At a recent session of MTC Austin, we discussed creating narrative settings to engage the particular interests of one’s students. We considered story problems that might take place in popular literary or video-game settings, or draw on popular trends from anime to superheroes. Participants were invited to flex their creative writing muscles and spice up some sample “boring” story problems. One participant chose this original:

About the Author

Equal parts storyteller, teacher, and mathematician, Jason Ermer (he/him) was once voted “most likely to lead children to their fictional doom.” Jason was one of the founders of the Mathematics Teachers’ Circle of Austin. He lives in Seattle, WA where he leads sessions of exploration and discovery with both young people and adults. Find Jason online at or on Twitter @mythematics.



The Math Circular, published by the Math Circle Network (, is a general-interest magazine for leaders and members of Math Circles and other math engagement programs. We feature lively content to inspire you mathematically, pedagogically, and organizationally.

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