Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Get in the Game!

I love board and card games.  They are incredibly fun and social. They get me to think.  They give me an excuse to hang out with friends.  And, best of all, they get me off of the screens!

Board and card games also give me an opportunity to learn by playing - a part of education that seems to be frowned upon in today's world.

This year I have used games in the classroom as often as I can.  There are a few games I regularly use in my classroom. This blog will explain two of them: Settlers of Catan and Blokus.

Settlers of Catan
This game is great for math and social studies integration.  Students begin by exploring the map which represents different geographical features and resources.  I explain that the number value represents the die roll needed to produce a resource from that land.  Each land tile produces a specific resource.  Recalling their knowledge of dice and probability, they have to determine what are the best locations to settle.

During this game students are faced with many challenges that early explorers faced - acquiring resources, controlling trade routes, and finding quality places to settle.  They quickly learn that the 'best' settlement areas are quickly claimed by rivals.  If their settlements aren't productive, they need to come up with creative ways to meet their resource needs, either through diplomacy or settling less desirable areas.

Students also learn that as the game goes on, the relative value of a resource changes.    

Four students start - only one will win.

After the game students reflect on their play.  Yes, I said reflect.  As is true in any learning activity, the learning occurs in the reflection aspect of the lesson.

What resources, number values, or trade routes did they control?  How did they start and finish the game? Was there a missed opportunity or a great play by an opponent? This is a great way to tie students back into tracing settlement over periods of time, the randomness of probability in short experiments, and long term goal planning.

The Boston Globe recently published an article about Why the US is falling behind in Math.  In it the author discusses the lack of logic curricula as a key reason.

Blokus is a chess-type game (abstract strategy - no luck, all information is given) so players constantly need to think ahead.  It develops a student's geometric and spacial reasoning - being able to see how certain pieces fit in the negative space - as well as developing logic with tactical thinking and strategies.  The students learn what pieces are most important to play early, mid, and during the end game.

Students also just take their pieces to 'fill the space' to make a perfect square or rectangle.  They all do this - I'm convinced that it is built into their DNA.

This is my favorite game to watch the learning happen. Games are relatively quick so they get to play multiple times.  Students go through specific learning stages with similar reflections after each time they play the game.  These reflections include where to play, what pieces to play early, and how to recognize and build "escape routes."

You can't stop red, you can only hope to contain her. (They didn't)

After the game has concluded, students also tally the size of each piece they have remaining and the total percent of 'bloks' they have left.  They then reflect on the board, their game play, and what strategies or lessons they have learned to improve their gameplay.

With all this reflection, students think I'm trying to build master players.  The truth is that many of these reflections tie right back into our 'regular' curriculum.  Did you use your resources wisely?  Did you take your time?  Were you thinking and planning ahead, or were you just making decisions in the moment?  How did these decisions work out for you?

I really enjoy these games because of their multiple tie backs to different learning standards, but also due to the fact there is not just "one way" to win. You can't memorize the 'answer' because there isn't one solution.  This ties back into The Globe's article - students need to think creatively, logically, and two-steps ahead to achieve victory.

There are other games I use on a regular basis in the classroom as well including Dominion, Dixit, and Ticket to Ride.  What games have you used and how have you successfully implemented them in your classroom?

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Multiplying Decimals at the Casino.

Hello everyone!  I'm really excited as we just started spring break here, so instead of my weekly post I've decided to do a bunch of short success stories from the year.  These are all ideas that I've wanted to blog about, games I've played, or just a-ha moments.  

The first one is a card game I played earlier in the year that helped students reinforce the concept of multiplying decimals.  

Protocol: Decimal Blackjack (or 21 if Blackjack is taboo at your school)

Quick summary: This activity has students practice multiplying decimals.

Materials needed: decks of cards with the 10s, Jacks, Queens, Kings and Aces removed.


1. Put students in partner groups (see my blog on my beliefs of getting into partners here)
2. Give each student a modified deck of cards
3. Ask students who knows how to play 21.  Explain the differences in this game:

  • Your goal is to get to .21 or HIGHER without going UNDER.
  • You will be multiplying, not adding, your values
  • Each card represents a decimal, so 8 is actually .8
  • The person closest to .21 without going UNDER wins.

4. Students each draw one card from the deck.  The player with the higher value goes first
5. The student draws a card and multiplies the two values:

This student started with .9 and had to multiply that by .3

6. Play continues until one player goes under .21 (twenty-one hundredths).

I really enjoyed this game.  Rounds went fast (sometimes ending in just one card) which meant lots of repeated practice.   Students quickly made lots of connections to the number line, the algorithm, and reviewed basic facts, but also increased their number sense... Here was one of the big take aways from MANY of my students:

Low numbers "suck" - They learned that when you  multiply by .2 or .3 the value goes down QUICKLY!
Mr. Taylor! I had .9 but then I LOST IN ONE CARD! *SCREAM*

This was by far my favorite unintended consequence of the game.  Building that number sense helps them estimate answers much more accurately and find errors in their thinking in more complex problems.

Students have really enjoyed this game - I've kept it in my game center and they often ask if they can play.  I'm looking for ways to increase the application and metacognition of this activity.  If you have thoughts, please let me know!

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Welcome to the Math Art Gallery!

So we are closing in on that spring break, which of course means that because of this and the fact we just finished PARCC testing,  our students are all but checked out.  Perfect time to introduce geometry concepts, right?


Looking at the CCSS, I go through some of the key terms and words that my students will have to know to continue their mastery of learning targets.  A few are ones they have mastery of, some are ones that are familiar, but most are ones that will need some review.

On Wednesday, I start the lesson.  The students walk in and see a stack of white paper, compasses, and rulers.  They also notice bins of colored pencils and markers up front.

I begin the lesson explaining how hard they have been working and I really felt we needed a day to just relax.  No major lesson today - they will have the period to just draw.

An aura of suspicion goes up, but I continue:

Seriously, all I have planned today is for you to draw.

One brave soul speaks up - "Mr. Taylor, you have something up your sleeve."

OK, there are two conditions.  First, whatever you draw has to be school appropriate.  Second, you have to use these tools as intended for their regular use to draw.  You can not draw freehand at all.  I mean I need to add SOME element of challenge, right?

I then introduce the compass and explain how to use it.  I tell them there is some learning curve (hah) to it, and they will need some practice to build the muscle memory.

There is still some doubt in the room to the 'leniency' of the assignment, so again I emphasize the main points:

You can draw whatever you want as long as it is school appropriate and you must draw using the tools as designed (rulers for straight lines, compass for curves and circles.)   No freehand.

I then pass out the paper and tools.  I explain that each student gets exactly one sheet of paper - if they "mess up" they can use the back, but after that they have to incorporate errors into their art.

I give them the period, making sure students are using the tools correctly and helping them use the compass - in fact I end up setting up a mini-lesson station for this tool.  They are excited and work the period.  They ask about color, and I tell them there is no expectation of color, but if they choose to color that can be done by freehand so long as the original lines are visible.  They are also allowed to black outline by freehand (instead of re-using the tool to trace over an established line.)

Here are a few samples of what my students created:

 They ask about homework, and I tell them they can finish their products, remembering the rules.  Some students borrow compasses, others choose to hand in what they have.

The next day students come in and see their works of art hanging around the room.  I welcome them to the math art gallery and ask them to take their seats.

The girl that spoke up yesterday mentions, "I knew there would be more to this..."

I start by asking who has been to an art museum before.  Many students raise their hands.  We go over norms of art museums:

  • quiet voices
  • you aren't allowed to touch the art work (or even come close to it)
  • walk slowly
  • You shouldn't lean on the walls or use them to write on
  • Don't clog up any areas

I actually had this video prepared in case students were unfamiliar with the norms, but didn't have to use it:  How to behave in a gallery.

From there I welcome them again to the Math Art Gallery.  Their assignment is to find different forms of geometry in the various works of art in the room.  They should take notes as to who's artwork it is in and where in the artwork they see it.

I also tell them there is a definition sheet in two different spots of the room - if they are unsure about a term, they should reference that sheet for help.

They then take the next thirty minutes in the art gallery looking for the terms, but also admiring each other's work.  I wander the gallery with the same worksheet, finding the same properties.  They complement each other as they pass, and I share some of my favorite observations. We all comment on properties that are easier or harder to find.  Some, we note, are quite rare!  Students also remind each other of the norms as they walk.

I really enjoyed that part of the community building - an unexpected and happy outcome :)

After thirty minutes, we all return back to our spaces and review our work.  Students share where they found the terms - scalene triangles, trapezoids, arcs, chords, and so on.  As we review, students become shocked at how many geometric terms are in their drawing - they are amazed that there is so much to their work.  Specifically, the student that did the 3d cube was amazed at what was found.  He said he just wanted to do a simple shape, but it turns out that he and other students found the following elements in his drawing:

  • acute angles 
  • cube
  • obtuse angles 
  • parallelogram 
  • parallel lines 
  • perpendicular lines 
  • rectangle
  • right angles 
  • right triangle 
  • rotational symmetry 
  • scalene triangle 
  • squares
  • trapezoids

Over a dozen terms in that one 'simple' design.  They began to build awareness of geometric terms and properties in everyday objects around them, looking at them through a new lens.  From there students began attaching meaning to the vocabulary.  They gained practice using the tools to create more specific designs.  Their natural curiosity kept the momentum going, and all of this coming the week before spring break.

So for those of you closing in on a week off - keep the lessons real, make the time count, stay away from the worksheets, and keep the students enchanted.

This was my contribution to the gallery.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Meet My New Baby, Neon!

I have a new baby!  I adopted one of the elements last night!

Confused? Want to know more?  So did so many of my students - and that is the beauty of using hooks when you teach.  Students want more information - they crave it.  It's torture to NOT give them knowledge.

Here is how a typical science lesson can go:

Teacher - "OK, we've been studying about elements.  We know how to arrange the electrons in the first twenty elements pretty well, and I'm pretty sure you know how to calculate the number of protons, neutrons, and electrons, so now you will all become an expert on one element.  You'll have to pick an element and do research on it.  You need to find out the key components of that element - the ones we have been talking about: melting and boiling points, period, group, as well as some interesting facts about the element.  Be sure to also include a Bohr's model.  You'll put everything on a poster and present it on Monday. I'll give you some class time today to get started."

The teacher is giving the information, telling the students what they know, and letting them know what the expectations are.  Picture what the students are doing while this information is being disseminated.  Are they focused? Are they interested? Are they engaged?  Are they looking interesting  facts up before you even tell them to do so?

Would you want to be in this classroom?

Most students in this classroom tuned out by the word "research."  Nobody is engaged, unless they have a strong internal desire to learn about the properties of elements.  The teacher is assuming knowledge that may or may not be there.  And the poor elements are literally all around them - in the air, the paper, the drool on the desk from the student that fell asleep -  thinking, "Is this what we've become? How drab!"

(Drab is elemental for "boring and non-pirate-esque")

In the book Teach Like A Pirate by Dave Burgess, you get dozens of great hook ideas, ways to transform lessons, and a chance to reflect on your pedagogy within the classroom.  I always felt I was a pirate-type teacher, but his presentation at The Association for Middle Level Educators really tied it together for me.

Here is how my science lesson looked:

First, as the students came into the classroom they saw me in the back of the room around a small doll bed.  I look down at the bed, smile, say I've gotta go teach now, cover up something in the bed, and head to the front of the room.

Props - one of the keys to teaching like a pirate!

I load up Kahoot and we review concepts presented in the past  couple of weeks.  I get some great formative feedback, including the fact that my students need more practice calculating the number of neutrons in an element, but I'm really happy with how well students have internalized the learning objectives.

A girl named Lauren was the winner, pulling ahead on the final question, and got to do her victory lap dance around the classroom as we applauded.

This was the final question that gave her the win. There were massive protests.

The students - now fully engaged in the class - are told a bit about my evening.  I got approval to adopt a new baby.  His name is Neon and he's gorgeous - a beautiful orange red baby!  I show them the adoption papers and explain that the adoption agency allowed me to let students also adopt elements that weigh between 3 and 20 AMUs.  

Students are directed to their notebooks.  They look at what elements this might include.  They connect that these are the first 20 elements except for Hydrogen and Helium.  My class is only 16 students, so I tell them that each baby element can only be adopted once.  I also told them I'm not giving up my baby, so Neon is also out!

We then use instant classroom to hold a 'draft' as to which element they get to adopt.  After a student makes a selection, I give them their new 'baby' - with artwork designed by Kacie D.  

From there I shared both my example adoption paper as well as a template for them to create their own paper.  Students already had links to resources to complete the assignment.  I explained that adoption papers were due by Monday.  It didn't matter - many of the students wanted to get started right then.  

Now, this lesson wasn't without issues.  Upon reflection, I didn't do as well as I could have during the 'draft' portion.  Students were choosing elements that they knew other students wanted, and at times were laughing at how some of the elements looked.  I did address this the next day, but  I could have done a much better job of community building by addressing these issues immediately. 

However, this lesson got every student EXCITED to have a deeper understanding of one specific element.   Students were asking if there was a limit to how many fun facts they could research - can they do their own art work - could you make a bigger poster?   Teaching like a pirate changes student engagement WITHOUT changing content.  In fact the content tends to go deeper and becomes more intrinsic because of the thrill that comes with the learning.

Teaching like a pirate transforms your classroom - what pirate stories do you have?  How do you hook your students?