Math Relay

I was frustrated with review games.  The students that needed the most help didn’t seem to be getting it out of the game.  Although they liked the fun of Ka’hoots those not fast enough just seemed to guess.  I tried Jeopardy as teams but, again, the students who already knew would jump in and do the problem for the group.  Even having a different student present the answer didn’t do what I wanted.  So, I had an idea.  I call it Math Relay.  And although not The Answer to All Your Review Problems, it has made a huge difference in my class reviews.  And students love it.

The first time we play we discuss what a relay race is in track and field.  Enough 6th graders know to have a good discussion.  I then explain that the actual math is still a group task as always – everybody contributes, everybody writes, everybody understands.  The relay part comes in getting the questions and bringing answers up to me.


The first time we play I prepare 4 questions and one challenge.  Later, in the year I can have up to 6, plus the challenge.  I try to make the first one just a little easier than the rest.  It might be a problem we have done in class.  I also cover all of the standards that will be on the test.I print them out each on a full piece of paper headed ‘Do Not Write on This Paper’.  It usually works.  I copy enough for each group in my largest class plus one, just in case someone writes on it.

I place the piles upside down around the room.  I have large numbers up in each corner from a Get to Know You activity in the beginning of the year.  Later I’ll add 5 and 6.  After each period I check the papers to be sure no one has written on them and turn them back upside down.   I also do the problems ahead of time so I have a quick key to use.


Students know that the chairs in each group are ‘numbered’ and which chair they are in.  When I say ‘Go’ chair one jumps up and gets Problem 1.  The group discusses it and then each student writes the solution in their notebook.  Chair 1 then brings it to me to be checked.  If someone else is already there they then make a line across the front of the room so that my view is not blocked.  If the question is incorrect they go back and work on it with their group.  The third time they come up I will give a small suggestion to help them.  When the problem is correct I initial it, they return the problem and return to their group.  As soon as Chair 1’s bottom is in their seat Chair 2 rushes to get the next problem.  It continues until we have only 10 minutes left of class.

The Winner:

When the first group that has completed all the problems has come up I put a 1 next to my initials.  I continue in order until time is up. Only a few groups general have to wait and not for very long.

I go to the group I labeled 1 and check that all four students have done the work correctly in their notebooks.  If they have not, the group is disqualified and I move on to group 2, etc.  I use decorated pencils as prizes, although students liked it better when I used a Jolly Rancher.

After I have found a winner I project the answers so that all groups can see the answer to the last problem they were working on.

Last week a 6th grade boy said, ‘This is better than gym!’  I call that success.

Butterflies and Bumble Bees

First day(s) of school!  It’s the excitement and idealism of butterflies and the details and urgency buzzing like bumble bees.  So I like to add order to the excitement, calm any nerves and inspire each student for a wonderful year of math.  It helps me enjoy the day more, too.  Helping students build relationships with each other, with me and with math is not only foundational but a fun way to start the year.  And I try to do it in such a way that we are laying the ground work for successful rigorous mathematical thinking.

The first day of middle school for 6th graders can be overwhelming so I do a combination of independent/quiet, group/moving activities.  I’ll start with introducing myself with the same activity I’ll ask them to do, The Me Behind the Picture.  It plays off of social media without endorsing any one site.  This is important not only because it allows me to get to know the students but is something everyone can do.  I want students to feel good about their work in my class and one way to do this is establish a foundation of success the first week.  The Me Behind the Face

The group and movement activity is called Pair, Share and Move.  I have a list of questions with multiple choice answers.  Students listen to the question, choose an answer and then find someone who has the same answer.  Together they go to the corner that has their answer posted and share one thing about their answer or something from The Me Behind The Face worksheet.  They must find a new partner for the next question.    Pair, Share and Move

The first day ends with the first homework assignment being explained and given.  Students are to write a letter to me about their relationship with math.


The Regeneration of My Syllabus

I’ve always gone over expectations and routines with students and sent them home to parents.  This last year we tried actually teaching one section a day and gluing it into their notebooks. Also sent one home and had a ‘sign, tear off and return’ part.  But throughout the year it was clear that students and parents had either forgotten or hadn’t read them.  So, this is what I’m thinking of this year, with a little humor at the end.  I teach 6th grade, urban setting and know that there is not one answer for all but would love to hear what works for you.

I’m approaching this like a unit.  What are the desired outcomes and how best to get there?  Students and parents should be able to find and understand expectations and procedures easily in a ‘rememberable’ format.  Perhaps a guide or handbook would do this.  There would be a limited amount of print and a few illustrations per section, two sections per page.  It would be copied on 17 x 22 paper and folded/stapled into a book. It would include most of the same material of a syllabus but presented as a guide not ‘here are my rules’ style.

I’ve been playing around with names. It should be clear and draw the reader in.  Something that they relate to or is entertaining.  The challenge is that this is different for parents and students.  So here are the ideas so far. Some are serious and others I couldn’t resist.

  • Math 6 Owners Manual
  • Life Hacks for Math 6
  • Ready Student One
  • How to Succeed in Math 6 by Really Trying
  • Are Your Mathy Senses Tingling?
  • Code Cheat
  • League of Extraordinary Mathematicians
  • Play Book for Math 6, How to  Score
  • (how not to be) 20,000 Points Under the C
  • Around the Math in 365 Scaled Score Points
  • Make Math Great Again

I just got Ready Player One from the library so I’m going by the title only and that it will be a movie soon.  Let me know if you’ve read it and it doesn’t really work.  And if you know how to change comments to show immediately please let me know.  I’ve searched and can’t get back to it.

5 Things I Learned in 2016/2017

  1.  When you want to write a blog do it.  Don’t wait because it seems too soon since the last post.  Go with the excitement of why you started to blog in the first place. Proof- here I am with only post #3. Oh, yeah, remember to tell people you blogged.
  2. Recreating a classroom takes a lot of time and it’s ok to do it in a way that makes sense to you, see #4.  I thought I knew it would take a lot of time but now ‘a lot of time’ has a new meaning.  Researching, collaborating, rewriting, communicating to staff, parents, reflecting, posting work, keeping it current all take time.
  3. Success doesn’t always look like what you expected.  Classes develop personalities.  Allowing the noisy class to be noisy when it is because of enthusiastic engagement is just acceptable as allowing the quiet class to be so.  And, don’t be afraid to try it someone else’s way.
  4. Take care of yourself.  If you don’t sleep your student’s might, right through your class. ; ).
  5. When presenting start with the student work, let teachers try it.  Thank you to the many people who came to MCTM in Duluth this spring and stayed through our presentation.   The reviews were helpful and the above statement came from you.  Also, thanks to many of the excellent presenters from whom I glean so many helpful ideas.

This summer’s goal is to go back to topics I wanted to blog about:  why I washed warm ups out of my room,  what helped to create mathematical discourse, how I survived the last month of school, and changes for next year.

Happy Summer Everyone!

The difference a blank sheet of paper makes.

Students could share what they journaled for an open house.

Last spring I attended MCTM’s pre-conference.  Yeap Ban Har spoke about how Singapore empowered students to  learn from each other, communicate mathematically and be able to think beyond the answer.  I have used group work for years.   Johnson and Johnson’s materials in the  80’s.  And for the last 15 yrs., Elizabeth Cohen’s Designing Groupwork.  I’ve stayed committed but that ‘sweet light’ of total engagement and increased learning seemed to elude me.  Until this year.

I’ve used Sara Van der Werf’s 100 numbers activity before (See  You give the students one piece of paper and they work together.  They really get into it and lean into the work.  But this year I followed Sara’s suggestion and took pictures of them working, discussed it and hung up the pictures.  That primed the pump but what really got the water flowing was the transfer to doing all of our math this way.  And having it be the first math that they do when they come into the room.

A problem is on the screen and the students are given one blank sheet of paper.  They then all work together to solve the problem.  No dance and pony show to get them excited about it.  No scaffolding to  lead them down the path I want.  Just the math and a piece of paper.  Everyone is expected to contribute and everyone is to be ready to share.  And, the class becomes responsible for their learning by determining whether answers are correct and questioning each other to support their decisions.

One of the biggest challenges, as in all group work, is having group worthy problems.  A group worthy problem is one where there are multiple approaches, strategies to use.  It takes thinking and discussion to decide what the group should do.  Ideally, there is an initial reaction of, ‘What?’   This really helps students appreciate, enjoy and even celebrate their solution when it comes.  The learning is in the struggle, not the answer.  More on that another day.

Writing group worthy problems takes time.  Bonnie (my grade alike partner, whose name I now have permission to use) and I meet often.  We read the standard, look at the recommended material from the district, search the net and then usually rewrite something.  It is time consuming but it is so worth it.  Student discourse and ownership of the class is increasing. More on that later.

One of my favorite problems this year was when we gave students a picture of a triangular prism with dimensions and volume provided.  There were two questions.  1.  Why is this called a triangular prism?   2.  Why is — the volume?  Instead of being given a formula and being told to practice, which is not group worthy, students had to analyze, use prior knowledge, test out ideas and convince each other.

At the end of the quarter I asked students to write about what they like about math/math class.  Overwhelmingly students said group work and math making sense.  Yes, a lot of work but so worth it.

Why a blank sheet of paper?

Last year I spent a lot of time thinking about my students, their learning and my teaching.  I’ve taught awhile and have used a variety of techniques and strategies, some by choice and some chosen for me.  Some resulted in curious, synapse firing, empowered students, and a classroom where they, and I, were eager to be.  But even the good things sometimes slipped away as we as a school or a district tried new things.

I love learning new things.  I’ve taken classes, taught classes, and have a hard time letting a good professional development opportunity slip by.  After all, we can’t go to everything, right?  I knew I knew a good amount about how to help my students learn.  I should after 39 years of teaching with some amazing teachers and leaders.  While I was putting this all together last spring I attended an amazing workshop.

Although many of the ideas and principles were ones I had embraced and used, there was one that stood out.  Groups worked together on one sheet of paper.  Not just to write up the presentation of their solution but to explore and solve the problem together.  As I listened to Yeap Ban Har discuss the students in the videos I knew I wanted to try this.

So, last spring I talked to my grade alike partner and we decided to take a new approach to our classrooms.  Mid summer I wrote out my philosophy and strategy ideas.  We discussed a bit and were soon planning.  I knew I wanted to blog and share our journey. However, I couldn’t come up with a title for the blog.  And then one day it became obvious. The symbolic sheet of blank paper. Not only did it represent what we were doing in the classroom but could represent so many different things.  But for now it will help tell the story of helping students think mathematically in real world context, challenging themselves and learning the beauty of math along the way.

How does that one piece of paper make a difference?  That’s the next blog, once I figure out if I’m doing this right.