Friday, July 29, 2011

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Summy: A Math Twist on a Classic Card Game

I love the classic card game of rummy.  Whether it's because the game is so great or I'm just not very original (I prefer to believe the former), I constantly revisit rummy as a basis for creating new learning games.

My latest twist on rummy involves adding positive and negative integers.  It's called Summy (pun most certainly intended):
  1. Players are dealt 7 cards.
  2. Remaining cards are placed in a draw pile, with the top card turned over to be the "sum total" card and the first in the discard pile.
  3. Black = positive integers, red = negative integers.  All face cards are positive or negative 10, depending on their color.
  4. During their turn, each player draws one card from either the draw or discard pile, and tries to make groups of 2 cards or more that add up to the sum total.  
  5. Players must put down something, so they might have to keep drawing cards until they can.
  6. After their turn, players should discard one card from their hand.
  7. When one player has no cards left, the game is over.
As I noted when I revisited my combining like terms card game, if your students aren't familiar with the draw-play-discard structure of games like rummy, you might need to adjust or eliminate some rules.  The key here is that instead of making groups according to traditional rummy rules, players are seeking sums that match the sum total.  All other parts of the game are secondary.

Let's use the cards on the left as an example.  If my "sum total" card is (-8), I need to find 2 or more cards in my hand whose sum is (-8).  I could put down a group of 3 using either the jack of diamonds or queen of hearts as (-10):

(-10) + (-5) + 7

That wouldn't be the best play, though.  I would still have a red and black face card in my hand, worth (-10) and 10 respectively.  Since their sum is zero, I can include them in my group as well:

(-10) + (-5) + 7 + (-10) + 10

I'd be left with just the 8 and (-2).  I'd still have to draw a card, and discard one, so I would not have won quite yet, but I'd be well on my way to victory.

One of the most important lessons I learned while tutoring at Mathnasium was that children need number sense to become great at math.  With this game, they're being challenged to think of multiple ways of adding up to the same total, and as their hand changes constantly, so do the possibilities.

  1. Eliminate the draw-play-discard structure.  For example, you might simply pick one card as the "sum total," insert it back into the deck, and divide the deck equally among the players.  From there, each player could simultaneously try to make as many groups of 2 or more as quickly as possible.  The player with the most correct groups after 3 minutes is the winner!
  2. Use aces as 1 and (-1), or turn them into a wild card.
  3. Assign other values to face cards.  Instead of having all face cards equal positive and negative 10, you could assign these values: jacks = 11, queens = 12, kings = 13.
What do you think?  Do you have other ideas to make this better?  Would this idea benefit from a video demonstration?  Share your thoughts in the comments.

    Monday, July 25, 2011

    It's Time for Leaders to Embrace Cell Phones in the Classroom

    More and more technology-friendly teachers and education leaders are embracing cell phones as the best way to engage students and use technology efficiently and effectively.  It's time to reverse the trend of draconian cell phone policies in schools and launch new initiatives across the country.

    The November 2009 issue of Fast Company magazine had an article entitled Cellphonometry: Can Kids Really Learn Math From Smartphones? about corporate-sponsored educational technology in the form of smartphones. The pilot program, called Project K-Nect, provides students several North Carolina high schools with tech that student wanted (far more than laptops or even video game systems). The initiative has proven very successful, as the students take advantage of being able to connect with each other and their teacher for help pretty much whenever they want.

    We all know there's a huge push for expanding funding and access to technology in schools across the country, but I think it's safe to say we're a long way from cellphones and smartphones being considered part of that push. Harnessing the ubiquity and simplicity of cell phones for education is a challenging new frontier that I think forward-thinking educators should be pushing for.

    The most obvious challenge is not in funding or availability; there's plenty of funding and phones are a cheaper option than most other student-centered technology (some students could bring their own, lowering the costs even more). The real problem is in gaining acceptance from teachers and administrators who seem to enjoy spending their time banning and/or confiscating cell phones instead of figuring out how to take advantage of the situation.

    If you're skeptical, here are some great articles on this subject:

    From Toy to Tool: Cell Phones in Learning

    Cell Phones in the Classroom: From Banning to Embracing [video]

    Making the Case for Cell Phones in Schools

    The Contraband of Some Schools is The Disruptive Innovation of Others with BYOT (Bring Your Own Tech)

    An earlier version of this article appeared on my blog on Leadership in Educational Equity.

    Thursday, July 21, 2011

    Building Social Capital in the Community to Improve Student Learning

    This a guest post by Troy Edwards of Home Tuition Agency.

    Now more than ever, it is important for schools, parents, and communities to collaborate. The process of earning social capital involves networking throughout the school community. Gains are made through cooperative group efforts. Social Capital is an investment towards the education of today’s youth by utilizing the resources available. Gaining social capital helps build confidence within and strengthens the school community.

    Various establishments, like churches, volunteer organizations, and local businesses, are willing to contribute to the well being of the students within their community. When you give to your community, your community gives back; it’s a win-win. There are ways to improve the academic, behavioral and extra-curricular needs of the students. These include, building solid networks with influential organizations, businesses and people. The needs of the students can be met outside or inside of the school walls with social capital.

    If a student is having difficulty at school, which cannot be easily resolved by the involvement of a teacher or administrator, the school may seek to find an influential community leader to help: A former coach, member of the military, family priest, local business owner; basically, an adult not affiliated with the school that would make an impression on the child. When the school’s resources have been exhausted, it’s helpful to search elsewhere for a good mediator and solution provider.

    Many students will benefit by volunteering at local businesses for real world experience, but lack the knowledge and guidance of how to participate. It’s important to invite representatives to the school who will speak with the students on how to become volunteers. The value of volunteering not only awards the students with a sense of their role within the community, but also gives them a special kind of insight into principles, norms and values.

    Students tend to be receptive to adult volunteers who aren’t teachers or employed by the school. Parents are a great resource; their volunteer work at the school is invaluable. Additionally, local retired teachers are eager to act as mentors and tutors. Since many retired teachers choose to remain an active part of their communities, and their schools, several are willing to mentor and tutor children in need. Positive networking between adult volunteers and teachers can generate ideas about how best to create a positive learning environment in both the home and school settings.

    Whether in the classroom, in a volunteer setting, or at home, students of all ages can benefit from the development of social capital. Educational institutions and the community surrounding them are our best resources. Involvement of local business representatives, humanitarian organizations, and former school staff can be a valuable factor in assisting children during their formative years.

    Troy Edwards writes for Home Tuition Agency where you can find a Home Tutor to meet the needs of your child.

    Tuesday, July 19, 2011

    Keep up with the blog & more via social media

    If you're not an RSS or email subscriber, you probably visit the site regularly to keep track of what's been posted.  Well, if you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, everything from the blog is shared there in real-time, plus all kinds of thoughts and links that I don't post here. 

    In fact, I tend to share different things on each site, so you'll get something unique depending on where you choose to follow.  Of course, either one is a great way to connect with other readers, ask me quick questions, or leave feedback.

    Monday, July 18, 2011

    Rewiring the Student Brain with Feedback Loops

    The cover story of this month's issue of Wired magazine is about how the brain works in and how we can change our behavior.  The main process is through feedback loops: we collect and receive relevant real-time data, we're shown clear consequences (positive and negative) to what we do with the information, and then we do it.

    They use the example of a small town in California that had tried everything to get people to slow down in a busy school zone.  Nothing works until they created a sign that electronically showed each person's speed (as measured by a built-in radar gun) and then below it says the actual speed limit.  It made a huge dent in getting people to slow down, and now "Your Speed" signs are all over the country.

    As I read this I thought about the feedback loops I've been creating in my classroom over the years.  Clearly there's plenty of applications for this as we get better with data, but I was thinking of the more practical, day-to-day uses of this concept.

    A poor feedback loop from my classroom

    I used to post students grades on a weekly basis on a bulletin board (using student IDs instead of names, as seen above), but this was an incomplete loop.  The data was relevant and there, but there was no consequence or clear paths of action to take.  I just kind of hoped students would get the idea.  Not surprisingly, it did little to inspire students to get or stay on track.

    Far more effective was the detailed list of assignments, grades and category percentages that I would give every student at the midpoint and end of each grading period (usually a six week period).  Students had relevant real-time data, and because I kept file folders containing copies of assignments (with labels/dates consistent with what was on their  report) they could easily take action.  Usually I gave them part or all of the period to do this, and this would have a huge effect on getting students to make up work and pull up their grades.

    This is an effective loop, but would be better if I gave out these detailed reports weekly or biweekly and skipped the posted grades.  It would likely eliminate the need to set aside "make up" time at all.

    I feel like this research has almost limitless applications in our complex profession.  What successful and unsuccessful feedback loops have you created in your classroom?  What potential do you see in this cycle to make positive changes in your students going forward?  Check out the article and share your thoughts in the comments.

    Friday, July 15, 2011

    Seth Godin Ideas Every Educator Should Read

    What's high school for? - I think we can teach these concepts within the context of everything else we do (or use them to frame our lessons on less enthralling topics).

    That's not the way we do things around here - Take a moment to reflect on how powerful even the most innocuous statement to your students (or children) can be.  They hear (and see) almost everything.

    The market is not seduced by logic - Replace "the market" with "your students" and read the post again.

    Interpreting criticism - Think about this when someone tells you your new idea to help students won't work (or when the usual naysayers criticize any changes or reforms that come up).

    Initiative isn't given, you take it - The key to solving a lot of problems, even if it seems like it you against the world.

    For a different perspective, try A few of my favorite Seth Godin Blog posts- part 1 from the blog Against the Wind. Of course, the best place to get this wisdom is from the man himself at Seth Godin's blog.

    Thursday, July 14, 2011

    Free Pass for Teachers to New & Improved Colonial Williamsburg

    I was imprisoned briefly in the summer of 2004.
    Just received a great offer for history and other social studies teachers via email:
    When was the last time you experienced Colonial Williamsburg?  We promise it is different – and even better – than you remember.  This summer, Colonial Williamsburg has a special offer for teachers – free admission on select dates, with discounted rates for friends or family.  On July 22, 23 or 24; Aug. 12, 13 or 14; or Oct. 7, 8 or 9, teachers can pick up their free pass at Colonial Williamsburg’s Visitor Center.

    Kick off your Colonial Williamsburg even before you arrive through RevQuest, an interactive alternate reality game that lets you discover the secrets of the revolution, online and onsite.  Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Trades will give you a look into craftsmanship that boasts incredible attention to detail through skilled artisans at more than 20 locations in the Historic Area, from the brickyard and the milliner to the blacksmith and the print shop. Every morning, part of the Historic Area transforms into Revolutionary City – live street theater depicting the challenges and triumphs of forming a new nation.  And to conclude the day, robust evening programs with schedule changes nightly provide unforgettable entertainment.

    There is no better place to watch history come alive and become part of the story yourself than Colonial Williamsburg.  New programs have begun this summer, including many exciting tours and performances that encourage visitor participation.  After experiencing all that Colonial Williamsburg has to offer, you’ll leave with new ways to think about history and methods to help you teach it more effectively. 
    Learn more about Teacher Open House Days 2011 at Colonial Williamsburg!

    Wednesday, July 13, 2011

    The Secret Behind What Makes an Effective Teacher

    I will never be able to share the majority of the lessons and resources I've used in my classroom over the years.

    Why? I didn't create most of them. It's a cliché at this point, but nevertheless true: effective teachers beg, borrow and steal.

    I usually found that while no single resource (textbook, teacher resource book, online lesson idea, district curriculum guide, etc) met the needs of my students for a given lesson, there was almost always enough to create a working sketch.  After that, I could simply fill in the details.

    Sometimes I just needed practice problems to supplement a step-by-step example I had created, or a word problem to make a real-world connection with a challenging concept.  Sometimes I just needed to add white space for students to show work or add a helpful graphic organizer.

    A lot of the time, I simply needed to incorporate my hilarious sense of humor into an otherwise dull topic, or make someone else's work fit into a lab, project or other student-led activity.

    I've never felt guilty about this, and neither should you.  Everything you want to do has been done before, if not exactly than in bits and pieces spread across the education ether.  Being able to synthesize disparate resources into something that will help your students is a skill you need to hone.

    If you spend your days and nights trying to be the world's most original teacher, you'll very quickly find yourself becoming the world's most frustrated.

    Monday, July 11, 2011

    New Graphic Novel Explains the Science Behind Life on Earth

    It's Alive! The Universe Verse: Book 2 by James Dunbar
    Last fall, I wrote about the graphic novel BANG! The Universe Verse: Book 1, which gave teachers a new resource to teach about the origins of the universe, physics and more.  Then, author James Dunbar launched a successful Kickstarter project to make It's Alive! The Universe Verse: Book 2 available for free downloadIt's Alive! is here!

    From the author: "It's Alive! The Universe Verse: Book 2 tells the scientifically accurate story of our Earth and how it was that life could have developed here from non-living elements.  It covers the formation of our solar system, Earth's early history, the fundamental principles of evolution and natural selection and the basic structures and systems of life as we know it.  And all of it is wrapped in well-written rhyme and richly detailed illustrations.  Thanks to the generosity of my Kickstarter backers it is available for free as a PDF eBook, and it has been illustrated in full color."

    The free downloads will eventually expire, so get them while you can.  If you want to support Dunbar's great work, consider ordering a few hard copies through the link below.

    Download free high-res version (80MB)
    Download free low-res version (5MB)
    Preview online
    Purchase the paperback ($15.95)
    It's Alive! Press Release

    I can't wait to see Book 3, which the author says he'll begin developing soon.  Check out his website for more information.

    Friday, July 8, 2011

    Outside of the Box Math Project Ideas

    Create Your Own Unit of Measurement [mental_floss Blog] - I've heard of teachers taking a similar idea and using it to teach conversion rates, unit rate, proportions, and basically any math topic based in measurement.

    Math Food [mental_floss Blog] - From the same blog is a series of examples of food used to demonstrate some really interesting high-level mathematics.  You could have the kids make a recipe representing an idea you've been studying recently, or make something yourself as a nerdy reward for your classes.

    Scavenger Hunt [via Differentiation Daily] - The ways to remix this one are endless... I like the idea of sending kids on a scavenger hunt that forces them to roam all over the school building (after notifying the appropriate administrators and staff, of course) looking for examples of concepts, taking measurements, solving problems.  I never did flesh out my building-wide geometry scavenger hunt idea, but feel free to steal the concept and run with it (but please share if you do)!

    Skype in the Classroom: Using Skype to Bring Education to Life [The Innovative Educator] - This one should be a no-brainer: your students and a classroom across the world take turns teaching each other mini-lessons.  The cultural and language challenges expand the scope of the lesson, force both sets of students to creatively teach concepts, and almost certainly engage even your hardest-to-reach students.  Read more about Skype's program from GOOD.

    Why Schools Should Embrace the Maker Movement [GOOD] - I think Make is one of those magazines that should be standard in every classroom library (math or otherwise).  But I digress: your kids should be making things--Lego Mindstorms robots or one of a zillion Altoid tin projects.  Like the Skype idea above, this is a naturally engaging interdisciplinary project that will force students to apply math in ways they might never have considered before.  What could be better than that?

    Thursday, July 7, 2011

    Open Call for Teacher Guest Posts

    Just a quick reminder to all the teachers out there: your guest posts are always welcome here, whether you are a blogger yourself or not.  Either way, it's a great way to share your thoughts with an amazing group of readers. 

    If you're interested, just send me an email ( with your proposed topic and a little about yourself.  I'm looking forward to your ideas!

    Wednesday, July 6, 2011

    Lost in Learning book giveaway

    Lost in Learning by Eva Koelva Timothy

    What is true learning?  What does it look like?

    These are the essential questions that drive Eva Koleva Timothy's beautiful meditation on learning and history, Lost in Learning: The Art of Discovery.  The author believes the desire and capacity for deep, meaningful learning is innate--a passion that needs to be acknowledged and awakened, not stifled and ignored as it so often is in our education system.

    Through striking photographs of historical artifacts and poetic reflections on the work of scientists, explorers and artists, Timothy has created something worth exploring itself.

    The book is physically wide enough to allow the richness of Timothy's photography to jump out at you, and to give her words time to sink in.  It would make a wonderful gift for a student heading off to college, a teacher who has inspired you, or anyone who would appreciate someone with a love of learning as deep as theirs.

    I'm giving away a signed copy sent to me by the author.  If you're interested in a chance at winning the copy, simply email me ( by 11:59 pm CST tonight and explain who you'd like to give the book to (even if it's yourself) and why.  I'll pick a random winner and send them the book.  If you'd like your own copy, you can get it on Amazon:

    Lost in Learning: The Art of Discovery

    Thanks to the author for graciously sending a free copy of her book for this review.

    Tuesday, July 5, 2011

    Toys & Games Every Kid Should Play With Growing Up

    Kids play with all sorts of toys and games as they grow up, and there's certainly value in anything that allows children to engage in free, creative play.  Yet considering the kinds of skills those children will need to excel in school and later in life, all toys & games are not created equal.

    With this in mind, the following is a list of items every child should have access to at the earliest age possible:

    While there's clearly value in students doing all kinds of puzzles and brain games, there's something special about Tetris.

    Our kids are too often taught that there's one right way to do things, one right answer to every question.  When they get to college, all the creativity and problem solving skills they need are severely lacking.

    That's the beauty of Tetris: you have to think creatively to survive, and you have to do so pretty quickly.  Even better: the problem is different every time you try to solve it!  Get this game into your kids' hands in whatever format they prefer.

    If you want an analog alternative, try my Fun and Easy DIY Tetris-Style Magnetic Blocks.

    Speaking of toys that foster creativity, there's nothing better than Legos.  Again, kids should be playing with blocks (no matter the type) from a very young age, but Legos are something very special.  The variety of themes, block types, kits and built-in encouragement from the company to rebuild endlessly combine to form an amazing canvas for creativity.

    In addition, children learn how to follow increasingly challenging directions as the sets increase in number of blocks and design complexity.  There's also no shortage of adults inspiring new and awesome ways to use these toys as a learning tool.

    Card Games
    Teachers who have lamented the slow death of the simple deck of cards as a fun, easy tool for learning need to thank everyone who's helped make poker popular as a spectator sport.  Because of those bracelet-loving folks, cards are still relevant to young people despite being completely and utterly analog.

    What that means is that all of the great card-based educational games that have been around for a long time can still be used to engage today's kids.  Check out my list of lesson ideas and games based around cards for some inspiration, but don't forget that most traditional card games have essential skills baked right in.

    Board Games
    There's no shortage of board games designed primarily for learning, but even games built for fun or the challenge (Monopoly, chess, Settlers of Catan) incorporate a wide range of skills that students need.  Creativity, problem solving, basic math, following directions, even collaboration and cooperation are easy to find.  They're also cheap, readily available, and aren't limited by your access to technology (or restrictions on content therein).

    Of course, you can also take this to another level by having kids create their own board games.  There's even companies that will self-publish your board game idea into something very professional looking.

    Your Turn!
    What other toys & games should ever child be able to play with growing up?  Disagree with anything on this list?  Am I too much of an analog educator in a digital world?  Let's discuss it in the comments.

    Friday, July 1, 2011

    Creative, DIY Summer Projects for Your Kids

    Magnetic Silly Putty [Instructables]

    Recreate Any Image in Jigsaw Puzzle Form With Ji Ga Zo [Wired: GeekDad]

    Xtranormal: Videos Anyone Can Make [mental_floss Blog] - Easy DIY animated videos.

    Another Reason Kids Should Make Their Own Board Games [Wired:GeekDad]

    Hackety Hack Teaches Ruby Programming to Aspiring Beginners for Free [Lifehacker] - Also, you could have them try Scratch.