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.”




Fueling Each Other With 21st Century Learning

In The Principal of Change post about Chapter 6 from The Innovator’s Mindset, George Couros asks this question:

Would you rather be engaged or empowered as an educator? Students would want the same.

Two weeks ago,  I was able to present to staff at Center School.  With a focus on the Four C’s (communication, creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration), this was a chance to share my passion for 21st century learning and hopefully fuel my colleagues to find their theirs.

As I enthusiastically created the structure for a ninety minute meeting, I realized I had an important goal. I wanted this powerful statement from Start Right Now to come to life not only for me, but most importantly, for my colleagues.

“Excellent teachers and leaders…have in common…a zest for lifelong learning, a need to share what they know and learn from others, a desire to associate with other educators who are equally energized about our noble profession, and a willingness to change and take risks.”

Here’s what happened.

3:30 All staff members and administrators were asked to join Quizlet Live to play one competitive game.  The terms were based on 21st century learning as well as tools and approaches they would have an opportunity to explore. Curiosity, intensity, and focus spread across the room as each team quickly became determined to work together and win, of course.  We listened intently when the winning team shared strategies that contributed to their success, which I highly recommend trying with students.  Here is the Quizlet set in case anyone wants to use it or edit it as I did originally.


3:50ish  We dove deeply into the benefits.  How did this activity help in terms of previewing  content?  How did it help us tap into our soft skills? How can we use it in the classroom?  I spoke of technology as an avenue to empowerment and asked my colleagues to think about the following slides.

4:00ish  Five teachers courageously shared a risk they have taken in the classroom.  They provided us with the process, the challenges, and the undeniable positive results.  Passion based learning, STEAM, and innovation, Kahoot, Seesaw, BrainPOP Jr., and Quizlet were all hot topics. Through sharing real stories and revealing engaging videos, the crowd was hooked.  In fact, when a teacher spoke, the rest of the room was completely silent.

4:20ish  We were able to take the potential energy that had been brewing and transform it into kinetic full force.  It was passion time.  For thirty minutes, teachers and administrators chose to learn about their topic of choice.  Most followed their “techspert” and went to work.  If someone had an idea that would get them running into school even more, however, I told them to go for it AND share.  Discussions sparked, accounts were created, playful assessments were developed, and a tour of passion based centers was given.  By 4:50 the enthusiasm for learning was still going strong.  In fact, I have never seen anything like it.



4:50ish  It took about three tries to get everyone’s attention and to be completely honest, I didn’t want to.  It was important, however, for us to  not only acknowledge our accomplishment for the afternoon, but celebrate it.  In addition, I wanted everyone in the room to make a commitment to it.  What I found was astonishing.  Teachers joined a Padlet I had created so they could share what they would put into action. It seems they went above and beyond.

Here are just a few responses and I love that a teacher actually promised she would explore a tool right after dinner!

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5:00ish  There was a new energy as we walked out of the room.  I spoke with teachers and quickly planned times I could come into their classroom or even better, they could see another class in action.  I couldn’t wait to come back to school.

NOW-So what’s happening just two weeks later?  What I share below and what’s yet to come I have no doubt are direct results of teachers taking risks.  In just one staff meeting they led, shared, responded to each other with enthusiasm, and demonstrated immense trust and support.  They are expanding their ideas, exploring new ones, and diving into what they’ve never tried before.  I used to say, “Let me come to your class and model this lesson!” Now I can say, “Go check out what ‘so and so’ is doing!  You don’t want to miss it!”

Several first grade and kindergarten classrooms are joining BrainPOP Jr. for the first time EVER!


           A class of first grade students AND their families are LOVING Seesaw! (In addition to the learning specialists who introduced it and continue to inspire.)

Screen Shot 2017-03-30 at 6.51.29 AM

First grade classrooms are engaged AND empowered with Quizlet Live!



As Kahoot was a tool many teachers had already experienced, they have taken it a step further and have created their own accounts.  Every day I hear of another quiz someone tried with their students.  Teachers are also starting to recognize the ease and power in the feedback Kahoot provides.  STEAM activities are spreading as well and next year, another first grade class will be launching passion based centers thanks to the brilliant group of students below and their amazing teacher.

See these young innovators in action.

In the video below, you can clearly see how BrainPOP Jr. has become a game changer for a first grade classroom leading the way with this wonderful tool.

My hope is that teachers will take the energy they gained, run into school, and continue to fuel each other.  If you are an educator, whatever role you are in, I challenge YOU with this quote from the number one selling book in educational leadership.

So don’t be afraid to put yourself out there.  Share who you are, what you’re passionate about, and how it motivates you to lead. -Shelley Burgess and Beth Houf, Lead Like a PIRATE

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