Games in the Math Classroom
“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.
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.
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.
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.”