Math is my thing. In our co-teacher partnerships, we have found it useful to take the reins in different areas so that we can really dive in. We become the visionary for that area of work in third grade. Math is mine. So naturally I’m always trying to think about how to reach everyone. Some children love math and know they love math. It is almost like they are born calculating. Others, for whatever reason, can be harder to convince. Unfortunately math is a drudgery for them and they would rather be doing just about anything else. Bummer. As an educator, it is hard to sit with. I’m not really ready to accept that their current opinion has to be the final say on the matter. I’m certainly not going to go down without a fight because I think math should matter to everyone. (As a side note, if I hear one more adult say something like, “I’m not really a math person!” especially in front of young impressionable minds, I just might explode.) The desire to bring math to everyone is something I’ve pondered for years, but this year the quest was extra poignant and swirled in my head for months. A few seeds came along the way to help.
The first seed was a strategy one family had to help their child buy into doing math. They talked frequently about how much she was going to need math to run the horse stable she dreams of owning someday. She often came in talking about how she was going to need to calculate prices of horses, or how much feed they would need. There is going to be a lot of math involved in running a horse stable, so she was willing to settle in and work on something she did not have a passion for (yet!) because of her dream. This is a strategy I have seen used to various degrees over the years but in this case it was connected so directly to something that is the key to her third grade heart.
It’s true! Math is so much a part of any other dreams one might have in life. Numbers can take you where ever else you might want to go, open doors, provide opportunities to do anything else you can possibly dream up. I mean this quite literally. If you want to travel, numbers make it happen. If you want to start a bakery or an organic farm, numbers make it happen. If you want to buy a house or even build a tree house, numbers get the job done. So what if there were a way to help math bring children things they want IN CLASS?
The second seed came from watching children play. We have been thinking a lot in the past few years about play in the classroom. We’ve been students of the culture of childhood looking to what they could teach us about how they learn.Children have an inborn way of processing and making sense of the world around them called play. How can we harness that power and work WITH it?
Many of the third graders this year loved to build little imaginary villages for fairies or dragons. Simple materials became an entire new world. Sticks became houses, rocks became dragon eggs, clovers and wild strawberries filled the market place. With a bit of nature at their fingertips they had whatever they wanted. I know of nothing as compelling to children as play. How could we bring elements of that play into the room and use them to also move us forward in math?
|The type of beautiful fairy creations we typically see on the playground.|
I’ll spare you the details about what happened after that. I’m actually not sure if I know how it all happened aside from some fun brainstorming with my co-teacher, Mauren, and our lovely math specialist, Cat Henney. But however we got there, the result was (insert trumpets announcing) ...bum buh buh… Green Acres!! The most exciting, fast moving, all inclusive economy-based game to ever grace our classroom.
While the game is still quite young, here are some reasons I love Green Acres so far:
The buy-in was instant. The conversations the children have as they plot and plan their next moves in the game go on during any spare second of the day. They elect to work on planning committees during snack. They talk as we walk over to lunch. They gather support for their newest plan during carpool. They groan and pitch a fit on the morning we have shorter math time. Someone even complained to me today how disappointed they were that tomorrow is field day because they won’t get to play the game.
|People were glued from the moment we started.|
Something for Everyone
Because there are so many varied tasks, people can find their edge. Every child is working, but they are (sometimes with a little help from us) finding areas that are exciting enough to be engaging, but not so overwhelming that they quit. When we see a snag we can add a piece of structure or accountability, or simplify a process to help keep things on track all within the context of the game.
math… Math … MATH!!!!
The children are doing so… much… MATH! They calculate and calculate and calculate and calculate some more. They do hundreds of math problems but are so happy to because it gets them to their goal. Today you should have seen the hairy problems people were sitting through because they knew it was going to get the class to their long term goal.
|These are one farm worker's calculations for a round of the game. |
The work would have otherwise been so monotonous,
but because of the context he stuck with it so that they
could get closer to the class's goal.
And what’s more is that many of the tasks are set up to promote work on really foundational skills-- things I’ve been wanting to find way to reinforce all year and now the children are willingly doing those tasks thousands of times and growing more efficient with each round.
Naturally over time the children master parts of the game. Pieces that were once challenging could become more menial. However, a curious thing happens in this game. As you earn money and upgrade your farm, it produces more. Suddenly you are doing the same task but with bigger numbers. It seems that the game has a way of naturally stepping up the challenge all on its own.
Power of Context
Giving these math tasks a context breathes life into them. With a story, pom pom become chickens and ping pong balls become eggs. A red box becomes a barn and marbles become apples. The other day in the middle of the game Ian said something like, “I never knew that counting some stuff and then walking over there and counting some more stuff could be so fun!” It really is all just simple, ordinary stuff, but the context makes it so much more.
* * *
Moving forward, many questions remain. Will other groups of children find this game as compelling or is there something about this group of children that makes the connection to the game so strong? Will the children continue to choose challenges to put out in front of themselves that will keep them engaged? How long will this game be able to keep them interested?
Time will tell, but for now hats off to Green Acres and the kids who make it sparkle.