Math as a Game

Teaching special education requires a lot of trial and error. As I entered the second semester of my first year teaching math, I began to experiment with instructional design.  After a few weeks of research and the help of a mentor, I developed a curriculum approach focused around games and activities.  I did this for a number of reasons: games are more fun; they facilitate engagement and motivation, and they ground abstract concepts within tangible experiences.  And perhaps more than anything, my students and I quickly grew tired of learning math from worksheets.  What I did not anticipate, however, was how this shift would radically improve learning outcomes. 

About a week into the second semester, a student showed me that expo markers worked on our desks.  It was a small moment that became a tipping point.  Here's an example of a 6th grade student using expo markers to draw and compare fractions:

A few month later, I workshopped a game that would engage the conceptual ideas behind the features of 3 dimensional figures.  I resolved on blind-folding each student and having them count unique features using their sense of touch:

The following video is an example of a more traditional game called Seven-Up. Students fold a piece of paper into 12 squares, cross one out and number the rest 2-11.  They are given 7 counters to place where they wish on the numbered squares. Then they take turns rolling dice. Each time they roll a number where a counter has been placed, they take it off. The first player to get rid of all their counters wins.


The first time most kids play the game, they space the counters evenly across the numbers. Over time, they develop pattern recognition. The number 7 repeats again and again, so they cluster their counters around 6, 7 and 8. At that point, the students have an emerging understanding of probability as a concept, and the term is introduced.

Designing the Learning Lab

My special education resource class was housed in a corner classroom on an outlying wing of Trist Middle School.  Although the location and size of the classroom made it feel like the students were an afterthought, I was committed to creating a space that made learning feel like a pleasure. How might I design a learning space that encourages students to do, create, and engage with the space? How might the space speak back to help them learn and remember? Here’s a snapshot from the Learning Lab after a few weeks:

Coaching Presentations

Part of my work as an experience assistant at the dschool focused on coaching student groups through the design thinking process.  During my first late-night coaching session, a student stumbled through a speech that was due the next day. After reflecting on the experience and what I had observed in my own classes, I came to realize there was a big need for students to be coached on how to deliver a solid presentation. In many ways it's not a surprising insight: giving a good presentation is hard work, and it's a type of performance most of us don't practice day-to-day.  What was surprising was that, after speaking with a few experts at the Hume Center for Writing and Speaking, I found a few quick and simple ways to coach students towards better presentations.

The handout above represents a distillation of how I work with students on their delivery. We begin with a short stoke:  First, we enter the space where the presentation will take place. This helps the presenter get accustomed to the right arena and offers practice with a number of important details, like how loud they should project their voice.  Then I ask the presenter to strike a power pose and hold it for a minute or so. This reduces stress and improves confidence.  Next, they assert themselves in space by taking wide, clunky steps and claiming "This is my space!" Finally, I ask them to take a deep breath and deliver their speech.

When the speech is over, I give careful feedback.  Most of the students who utilize our coaching sessions have a deliverable due the next day; realistically, they'll only be able to change a few aspects of their performance, so I limit myself to giving only 2-3 pieces of feedback.  On the handout above, the light nuggets are pieces of feedback that are relatively easy to turn around and apply.  When coaching, I offer no more than two light nuggets.  The heavy nuggets require deeper though to implement well, so I offer one at most.  It's good practice to work with presenters on implementing heavy nuggets.

Students often report feeling overwhelmed by presentations.  Limiting feedback helps students zero-in on aspects of the presentation they can control.  It may seem like a small step, but learning to control you delivery piece-by-piece increases confidence and leads to stronger presentations.