Games in the Math Classroom

Photo: Close up of student playing Heads Up!

“You use it to solve problems.”

“It has buttons”

“There is one one on your phone.”

A small group of students shout out clues to help their teammate guess a word. The teammate tasked with guessing the word stands, holding the back of a mobile phone to their forehead, the screen clearly displaying the word to the group. Meanwhile, since the phone is connected to an Apple TV, the entire class can see the word projected on the white board behind the standing student rushing to guess the word before a timer runs out.

Photo: Student Playing Heads Up! with Projection

Student playing Heads Up! math-style.

Quickly, the standing student blurted, “Calculator!” His team hoots and applauds as that word ended their turn.

This is a scene from math teacher Jennifer Fairbanks’ classroom as the students prepare for an upcoming test. It is her riff on the game Heads Up! popularized by Ellen DeGeneres on her eponymous television show. Heads Up! is a card-based game in the digital form of a mobile app. Fairbanks uses her own phone, having created her own deck of cards tailor-made for algebra class, that serves up vocabulary words for the students.

“I used it as a surprise and didn’t really tell the kids what we were going to be doing,” Fairbanks said.

During class, the students were focused, competitive, and boisterous, as Fairbanks posted the score after each group took a turn. By the second round, the kids were clearly engaged and having fun, all the while preparing for an exam. While one group may have tallied the highest score, everyone was a winner in reviewing math vocabulary.

Photo: High School Math Teacher Jennifer Fairbanks

Math Teacher Jennifer Fairbanks

Always a game lover, Fairbanks regularly modifies or employs games in her math classroom for concept and unit review. In any one year, students could play over 20 different game-like activities in class.

“I always build in a day of review before a test, so the kids get to practice,” Fairbanks said. “I try not to pick something where speed is an issue. I’ve tried to get away from that because I do not want the fastest or smartest to always get it right or win.”

One of her favorites is Zap, a review game she discovered online. Zap is another group based activity that involves cards. The first team to answer a math problem correctly selects a number between one and sixteen, which corresponds with a card. Some cards have positive consequences, some have negative consequences, and some have off-the-wall humor.

Photo: Team Playing Heads Up!

A Heads Up! team shouting clues.

This added element of randomness makes winning unpredictable. The first team to solve an equation selects a card only to be rewarded further by doubling their points. The next turn might see the first team finished pull a card that sees them get zapped and lose all their points. Yet another team might just pull a card that requires all teammates to get up and complete 10 jumping jacks or sing “I’m a Little Teapot.” Students must work to solve the math problems but the action keeps the students on their toes.

Fairbanks has been so successful in curating an inventory of games that she has begun presenting to other math teachers outside of Hopkinton. This fall, she presented at the ATOMIC Conference in Connecticut and she will be presenting again this spring for Math Educator’s Day at Milton Academy and in Atlanta for Twitter Math Camp.

“I love it. I love sharing. Teachers should take the risk of incorporating or modifying games in their class. It’s worth it.”

Education Evolutions Newsletter #26


sas-ipad flickr photo by zandwacht shared under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC ) license

This is a short eclectic mix of articles that may even have a slightly contradictory flavor. For me, that might be all the more reason why you might want to give them each a look. Plus, they are short. So don’t let the poetry article scare you off.

Education Evolutions:

Select Readings on Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age

Here are three curated articles about education, technology, and evolutions in teaching.

  • Tech Bigwigs Know How Addictive Their Products Are. Why Don’t the Rest of Us?Wired – Adam Alter  (13 minute watch)
    There was a time when stories like this were really making the rounds in the media. While this piece is an excerpt with a definite effort to sell a book by the article’s author, it does take a broader and more in-depth look at some aspects of life with devices and youth that probably should get a little more attention. Nevermind, youth adults need to be a whole lot more aware of behavioral addictions to devices too. Yet, youth have far fewer tools deal with these kinds of problems. The need for an “emergency brake” mentioned here is becoming an increasingly important phenomenon that we have culturally not been entirely ready to wrestle. There are no easy answers and I do not want to overly stoke fear but it is about time that we start thinking more deeply about putting them to use.

  • Why Teaching Poetry Is So ImportantThe Atlantic – Andrew Simmons  (7 minute read)
    As an English teacher, I could not really pass on including this article. Written by a high school English teacher, this is a strong argument for not only teaching poetry but even better about why it gets such short shrift. There are a lot of points where I am in absolute agreement, although I wish that Simmons would have went even further. There is no question that poetry has an image problem and can also be terribly intimidating for a lot of people but there may be no better literature with the breadth and depth of reach and relevance as poetry. It even has vastly greater connection to academic disciplines beyond literature or English study. That may be why the dearth of poetry in any modern curriculum is so tragic to me. That which we cannot easily measure has quickly fallen out of fashion, much to our collective loss. I will admit that I rarely feel as in command when teaching poetry but its power has never been lost on me. I wish more teachers across the disciplines recognized its importance and could overcome any fears about using it in their classes too. There is a reason why most of the human writing we have from previous centuries is poetic.

  • Five Ideas to Go Beyond SAMRTech & Learning’s K-12 Blueprint – Michael Gorman  (6 minute read)
    I think the SAMR model is a great first step in advancing not just teaching with technology but teaching practice in general. However, like all first steps they should not be the last. Having spent a fair amount  of time this past year watching teachers operate in their classes, I use the SAMR model as a lens for feedback but it is just one lens. Still, I really like Gorman’s broader approach and interrogation of the the model. There definitely are better Substitution examples than others, as he highlights. Moreover, I love his point on the letter placement being more about the lesson than the teacher. Using SAMR as a lens can provide some excellent anchors to discuss a particular lesson and potentially some more innovative pedagogical practices. It has genuine benefits and my hope is to use it to as way to start conversations but hope it never provides the end of them. Teaching and learning requires a lot of diversification and differentiation after all.

As always, thanks for supporting this newsletter.

Education Evolutions Newsletter #25


sas-ipad flickr photo by zandwacht shared under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC ) license

Hard to believe that this is the 25th newsletter. Nearly half a year has passed since I began this little pet project. It has been a fun endeavor. I hope it has been as worthwhile for those reading as it has been to collect and comment.

Education Evolutions:
Select Readings on Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age

Here are five curated articles about education, technology, and evolutions in teaching.

  • Not all heroes wear capes – but some carry tubes (Pi Day 2017) – MIT Admissions – MIT Bloggers  (3 minute watch)
    This would have been better had it made into the newsletter last week, seeing as it was in connection with Pi Day. The day happened to correspond with regular action admissions to the institution. Still, this is a super cool project made by a bunch of students. They riff off of Iron Man, even going full-on nerdy with its references to the recent comic reboot that involves a young black woman taking over for the famous Tony Stark. This is MIT after all. It is definitely worth a watch, just for the fun of it. It even inspired a “making of” blogpost.

  • Lack of Oxford Comma Could Cost Maine Company Millions in Overtime DisputeNew York Times – Daniel Victor  (6 minute read)
    This story made the rounds a bit in the last week. I even saw a television news story about it. Perhaps it is the English teacher in me but I am not even a nutter about these kinds of things. I definitely believe in the Oxford comma and this certainly brought out all the wonks. Still, I love stories like this about how language precision can prove costly, in real financial terms. We do not necessarily expect students to be perfect but they should definitely know that some mistakes matter a whole lot. A goal of writing is clarity and precision of expression, regarding comma use or not. Fortunately, lack of clarity does not involve the loss of $10 million.

  • For Online Class Discussions, Instructors Move From Text to VideoEdSurge – Jeffrey R. Young  (5 minute read)
    Having taught online for some time now, I have administered a whole lot of online discussions. Often, they are more like compulsory blog posts than actual discussions. It can be difficult to facilitate genuine conversations. It certainly can be done but I using video does change things. While I do not make it a requirement, whenever students opt to use video in discussions it can be transformative. I definitely support Joyce Valenza’s comment, “Literacy comes in a variety of exciting flavors.” Plus, it is becoming easier to post video in discussions, using outside tools or course software. Canvas, among others, have a built-in tool that allows for recording and posting audio or video directly to discussions.

  • The Guilty Secret of Distracted ParentingNew York Times – Perri Klass, M.d.  (6 minute read)
    This is an issue that seems to rarely get as much attention as kids and screen time. However, the amount of time adults, with or without children, spend with their faces staring at their phones is pretty stunning. I am not by any means guiltless, and I have definitely brought a book to the playground, but I sincerely make an attempt not to be that parent who reaches for their phone every chance I get, all but ignoring my kids. I spend a lot of time on various devices but I do try to put them aside when I am with my kids. We adults need to be better models for all kids. We are not meant to be always on and always connected. It definitely is not easy but it is worth it.

  • The Big List of Class Discussion Strategiescultofpedagogy.com – Jennifer Gonzalez  (12 minute read)
    This is a blogpost and podcast episode. Even if you do not listen to the audio, reading the post is worthwhile for the list of alternative strategies for approaching discussions in class. Whole class discussions remain a goto activity for a lot of teachers, especially in the humanities. They can be effective, engaging, and make a classroom far more interactive. Discussion is a valuable tool in a teacher’s stock and trade. Yet, a lot of class discussions look remarkably the same from classroom to classroom. What is great about this post is that the different approaches are divided into categories based on preparation. There are higher prep, lower prep, and ongoing strategies that can add a bit more variety to the well-worn activity. Some of these easily port online too.

As always, thanks for supporting this newsletter.