Trying to find math inside everything else

Posts tagged ‘math games’

Name That Solution

I was reviewing solving equations for my SAT Math class. It’s a tricky thing to do because “equations” includes linear, systems, quadratic, and exponential equations. A lot of different skills to go over in a short amount of time.

After working through the requisite problems, I wanted a little more practice, so I came up with a game that they could play, based on the Bid-a-Note sections of the old “Name That Tune” game shows. I called it Name That Solution. Gameplay goes like this:

  • Start over with a simple equation, like “x = 2.”
  • Each turn, a team can change the equation in one way to make it more complex. (For example, make it “x + 3 = 2” or “5x = 2”.) Only one operation and one term can be added at most per turn. The team finished by saying “I can name the solution of that equation.”
  • On a team’s turn, they may challenge the other team to, in fact, actually solve it. (“Go ahead! Prove it!”) If the challenged team can, in fact, solve the equation, they earn a point. If not, the challenging team gets a point.
  • First team to 5 points wins.


They played on whiteboards so they can change the equations quickly. The students quickly learned to not overextend themselves when making the equations harder, lest they find themselves challenged. So it leads to a nice exercise of constantly mentally making sure you know the steps to solve something before you take your turn, getting a lot of practice.

At the end of one of the classes, I did a big class-wide version, half the class versus the other half. But they wound up being very conservative, with neither team challenging the other and only take moves they knew they could solve. Which I guess was the point.


That final round.



Twitter Math Camp ’16

I’m currently on the road back from TMC16 in Minneapolis. (Ed: See, that’s when I started this post….) This long drive back is giving us all a lot of time to process and reflect on the experience. (I guess Rachel was right about that!)

I think I approached TMC differently this year. Lots of people have spoken about the rejuvenative properties of TMC, and I think I really needed them. I mean, everyone always feels tired when the summer finally rolls around, and rest and energy makes that better, but this time I needed something more than that. And TMC provided.

It started with Descon. You can read more about that in Rachel’s post here. But when I was struggling to choose a morning session, I settled on Tessellation Nation. Both those experiences gave me a deep joy of forming questions, exploring ideas, having successes, failures, and breakthroughs. It was like doing a hard reboot on my mind.

Some things I played with in the morning session:


Here I was trying to picture creating some sort of "inversion" tile that would connect the lizards of different chirality.

Here I was trying to picture creating some sort of “inversion” tile that would connect the lizards of different chirality.

With that in mind, my afternoons provided me with guidance about the upcoming school year. Really, I can sort them in what, how, and why.

What: I went to Jonathan’s session about hacking up the curriculum. His main idea was that the curriculum should not be focused around the nouns, but rather the verbs. That is, instead of having, say, a linear unit where you solve, graph, model, and then a quadratic unit where you do the same, have a solve unit where you do both types.

The approach sorta lends itself to the kind of spiraling that I was inspired by Mary Bourassa and Alex Overwijk to try, but was afraid to. So this is a step in the right direction.

How: I’ve heard about Talking Points for a while, but never had any experience with them, so I had to go to Elizabeth’s session. It was really nice to walk through the activities and see how the points can spark cognitive dissonance in their sequencing. I also enjoyed Elizabeth’s “deleted scenes” method of instructions, which reminded me of the dialogues in the Algebra Project.

Julie‘s session on giving feedback was helpful. I’ve worked on giving feedback without grades, but it can get a little overwhelming, so it was nice to get some strategies for streamlining the process. I think the most important one for me to remember as I start the year is to make space for the comments built right in to the assignment. That’ll make the whole process easier. Also, I need to remember that EVERYTHING should get a comment, not just things that are wrong. That way comments don’t become a proxy for grades.

Joe‘s session on teaching moves for implementing games was just what I needed. I can come up with some great games, but sometimes when it comes time to play them in class, it looks more like “Okay, here’s a game, go play it.” The most important one IMO was to have the students notice/wonder about the board/materials before the game is introduced. It’s a tenet of game design that a game is well-designed if players can (mostly) figure out how to play without looking at the instruction booklet. So the noticing and wondering works well with that.

Tracy’s keynote was amazing in so many ways, but she did hit on something I’ve been working on with my math coach and is now, I’m glad to see, becoming more of the thing in the MTBoS – never skip the close. Gotta work on that more.

Why: Social Justice, of course. Jose’s keynote obviously hit on those notes – as he said, students need to trust you before they can learn from you.

I went to Andrew’s session, which wound up just being a small conversation with him, me, Sadie, and Sharon. That’s where I decided my #1TMCThing – to decorate my classroom with more explicit social justice signifiers (like a rainbow flag, or a BLM poster).

Then at Annie’s session, she talked about her Mathematicians: Not Just White Dudes project where she tried to present mathematicians that identify the same as her students – even when they got super precise on her (“Is there a gay female Dominican mathematician?”) I definitely want to bring that into my class – although I would like it if, since I’ll be teaching calculus, I could get a good variety who contributed to calculus (or I guess just used it.) There as a group we also decided to start using the hashtag #sjmath (after I determined it wasn’t be used for anything else) to share social justice math resources, which Julie pulled a lot together here.

I started writing this on the ride home from TMC, but I ended it now, and I think that was actually a good thing. TMC is so early in the summer (for me) that I don’t go into vacation-mode until after. Now that I’m actually ramping up for school again, it was good to reflect and remember what I actually want to bring into my class. So my procrastination actually paid off! (For once!)

To conclude, here’s the camp song in MP3 form.

A Boss Fight?

One of the things about arranging your grading system like a game, as well as being a math game aficionado, is that it is pretty easy to combine the two. While yes, students can take quizzes or write essays to gain levels, they can also beat me in a math game. Of course, I’m not easy to beat, so winning against me would really show some mastery. (I do, though, allow them to gang up on me when the game is more than 2 players.)

The only students that really challenge me are the ones that hang out in my room at lunch, even though I’ve offered the challenge to everyone. And it’s cute because when they do lose they get even more determined, often because they may lose by a very small margin. (This is occasionally by design.)

The only game I’ve lost so far is Blokus, where the two Kevins beat me (but my score was still above the 4th player). As a reward, I gave them a level in Visualizer, as I figured that was the most applicable skill to winning the game. Planning ahead and visualizing paths in your mind is a useful skill. That same skill is the reward if they beat me in Ricochet Robots. In that game a team of Jane and Kevin tied me, so I still gave them reward, but they didn’t win.

It’s interesting trying to match games with skills. For example, the reward for winning at 24 is Tinkerer (since you need to play with numbers and try different things to succeed). It’s easy for games I made myself: if they can win at the Factor Draft (an upcoming post, I swear), they are a master of factoring. I have considered giving some points, not quite mastery, if they win against their classmates or my co-teacher, but to be a master, you gotta beat the final boss.

I’d love to have a bigger collection of games that I can use as assessment of skills, not just algebraic skills but the Standards of Practice as well. Any suggestions?

Intentions Change Approach (DragonBox 2 vs DragonBox 1)

So since I first had my students play DragonBox last year, We Want to Know came out with a sequel, DragonBox 2. They are now branded as 5+ and 12+, as the original DragonBox is intended to introduce the idea of algebra and solving equations to someone unfamiliar with it, while DragonBox 2 is meant to deepen the equation-solving toolbox of someone already familiar with solving equations, allowing them to deal with more complex equations.

I was trying to decide which one to use with my class this year. It seemed like DragonBox2 would be better at first glance, because I teach high schoolers: we have seen basic equations, and now we need to kick it up a notch. But I wound up going with DragonBox 1, saving the sequel for a handful of students who blazed through it and were advanced. I know I made the right choice because of situations like I tweeted about:


There were several students who could solve the first level (one of the hardest in the game), but not the second, which came later. This showed me that there was something about the structure of an equation that wasn’t getting through and that we needed to work on it.

In DragonBox 1, you only really have four abilities: you can combine inverses into 0, you can divide a card by itself to get 1, you can add a card from the deck to the game (one on each side), and you can attach a card from the deck to another (multiplication/division), as long as you do it to every card in the level. In DragonBox 2, you can do new things like flip a card from one side to the other, divide a night version by a day version (leaving negative 1), combine like terms, factor out common terms, and treat complex expressions as single units to multiply/divide by.

Those are all good things to do, and someone proficient in algebra should be able to do those things. But I backed away from using it in class because it lacked the why. At the end of the first DragonBox lesson, I compile the notes students took while playing to make a comprehensive list of rules and abilities you have in the game. The one student who played DragonBox2 insisted that, in the game, you can slide a card from one side to the other. No matter how much I pressed him, he didn’t see that the card wasn’t sliding over, it was flipping/inverting.

And that’s what I was afraid of by using DragonBox2. These tools are important, but they have to be earned by understanding them. DragonBox2 gives them to you by completing previous levels, not necessarily by understanding how. At the least, in DragonBox 1, because you are stuck with the basics, you have to grapple with where the solutions come from. They can’t magically appear.

So while DragonBox2 is rated as 12+, I wouldn’t give it to any student who didn’t already have a firm grasp on the concept of equality. Maybe post-Algebra 1. Or at least not until much later in the year.

Math Games

Back in January I participated in a panel on Math Games over at the Global Math. I meant to write this follow-up post shortly after, but January was a hell of a month for me and it slipped to the wayside. See my talk here, at the 2:55 mark.

I sorta hit the same point over and over, using six different games as examples, but that’s because I truly believe it is the most important point in both designing math games as well as choosing which games to use in your classroom. If the math action required is separate from the game action performed, then it will seem forced and lead students to believe that math is useless.

Global Math - Math Games.003This can be fine if you want. Maybe you want to play a trivia game, where the knowledge action is separate from the game action. But if you pretend that they are the same, then you have problems.

This is the same essential argument as the one against psuedocontext. It may seem like you could say “It’s just a game,” but students see it as a shallow way to spice something up that can’t stand on its own. (I’m not saying review games and trivia games don’t have their place, but they can’t expand beyond their place.)

Below are the six examples I gave, with the breakdown of their game action and math action. I hope to use what I learned in this process to have us make a new, better math game in the summer, during Twitter Math Camp.

Example 1 – Math Man

A Pac-Man game where you can only eat a certain ghost, depending on the solution to an equation.

Global Math - Math Games.005

If we apply the metric above and think about what is the math action and what is the game action? Here, the math actions are simplifying expressions and adding/subtracting, but the game actions are navigating the maze and avoiding ghosts. If I’m a student playing this game, I want to play Pac-Man. The math here is preventing me from playing the game, not aiding me, which makes me resentful towards that math.

Verdict: Bad

Example 2: Ice Ice Maybe

Global Math - Math Games.008In this game, you help penguins cross a shark filled expanse by placing a platform for them to bounce over. Because of a time limit, you can’t calculate precisely where the platform needs to go, so you need to estimate. That skill is both the math action and the game action, so that alignment means that this game accomplishes its goal.

Verdict: Good

Example 3: Penguin Jump

Global Math - Math Games.011Here you pick a penguin, color them, and then race other people online jumping from iceberg to iceberg. The problem is that the math action is multiplying, which is not at all the same. The game gets worse, though, because AS the multiplying is preventing you from getting to the next iceberg, because maybe you are not good at it yet, you visibly see the other players pulling ahead, solidifying in your mind that you are bad at math, at exactly the point when you need the most support. A good math game should be easing you into the learning, not penalizing you when you are at your most vulnerable point, the beginning of your learning.

Verdict: Terrible

Example 4: FactortrisGlobal Math - Math Games.014

This is a game that seems like it has potential: given a number, factor that number into a rectangle (shout-out to Fawn Nguyen here in my talk), then drop the block you created by factoring to play Tetris.

Again, the math action is factoring whole numbers and creating visual representations, which are good actions. But the game action is dropping blocks into a space to fill up lines. As Megan called it, though, we have a carrot and stick layout here, and often in many games. Do the math, and you get to play a game afterwards. (Also, the Tetris part doesn’t really pan out, because all the blocks are rectangles, which is the most boring game of Tetris ever.)

Verdict: Bad

Example 5: DragonboxGlobal Math - Math Games.017

I’ve written about Dragonbox before, so I won’t write about it too much here. The goal of Dragonbox is to isolate the Dragon Box by removing extraneous monsters and cards. The math actions include combining inverses to zero-out or one-out, or to isolate variables. The game action is to combine day/night cards to swirl them out, or isolate the dragon box. The game action is in perfect alignment with the math action, which makes the game very engaging and very instructive.

Verdict: Good

Example 6: Totally RadicalPlaying the Root

The board game I created last year (and you can also make your own free following instructions here, or buy at the above link). In this game, the game actions were designed to match up with math actions. Simplifying a radical by moving a root outside the radical sign, as in the picture above, is done by playing the root card outside and removing the square from the inside (and keeping it as points).Global Math - Math Games.021 You also need to identify when a radical is fully simplified, which you do in game actions by slapping the board (because everything is better with slapping) and keeping the cards there as points.

Verdict: Good

Final Note

One of the real challenges of finding good math games, as a teacher, is curriculum. Most math teachers know of several good math games, like Set or Blokus. While these games are great and very mathematical, they’re not the math content that we usually need to teach in our classes. So the challenge falls on us to create our own games, but making good math games is hard. (Making bad ones is pretty easy.) On that note, if you know of some good math games (that meet the criteria mentioned in this post), drop a line in the comments!


Dragonbox in the Classroom

Last week, my students spent 2 double periods playing Dragonbox, the iPad (and computer) game designed to teach solving linear equations, which I think it does quite well. (I agree with many of Max Ray’s opinions when he writes about it here. Which makes sense, as Max first showed me the game this past summer.)

While one of my goals was teaching solving equations, it was not my only one, which is what I wanted to talk about here. (I’ll probably review the game itself later.) I told the students that I had forgotten to make a lesson, so we were just going to play a game on the iPad today. What I did want, though, was for them to home their ability to figure out how something works. To me, this is an even more important lesson to get than just solving equations.

To this end, I talked about how websites like GameFAQs has walkthroughs for all sorts of games, but one walkthroughs were all written by regular players, who sat down with a game right when they bought it, took notes on what they did, figured things out, and shared with others. So we were going to take that role. In their Interactive Notebooks, I told them to write down every thing they could do in the game. Whenever they came across a new rule, some new ability, or a new solution to a tough puzzle, write it down. Example: “Tap the green swirl to make it disappear.”

The surprising part was, they really did it, and quite well. Hey even discovered a lot of things about the game that I didn’t know, because I always played it “perfectly,” since I knew the rules of algebra. (Example: if you have a denominator under a green swirl (aka 0) and tap it, the while thing disappears. Or a green swirl won’t disappear if it is the only thing left on its side, which was fun to talk about later.)

At the end of my first double, with about 20 minutes left, I compiled all the notes they took using Novel Ideas Only (where all students stand and share things they have written, only sitting once everything they have written down is said, either by themselves or someone else), creating a master list of actions they could refer to next time.

The next class, they came in and immediately started playing. I must say, the entire time I used it, the kids were really into it, and most of them were really persistent. Some occasionally requested help, but my intervention was minimal. This time, I had this answer several questions after they had played some more, which really dove into the meat of the game. What does this card or action in the game represent in math? Why does a certain rule in the game happen that way?

One thing I really loved is how solid the game got them on how dividing something by itself won’t make it go away. It was a tactic many of them tried in several levels and it always got them stuck. I focused on the difference between “zeroing out” and “oneing out.”

We had one major downside, technology-wise, though. Each game had four save files, which worked out, because I had four sections. So one file per student. But there is nothing to stop a student in one class from playing on, or, even worse, DELETING, another student’s file. I e-mailed the company, and they said a solution would happen in a future update.

Today was the follow-up quiz, and they mostly did well. The things they stuck on was something that wasn’t well covered in the game: the distributive property. But we’ll work on that.

Totally Radical

So I’ve been working on creating this board game, Totally Radical. (Tagline: Don’t Be a Square.) After some play-testing and adjustments, and bouncing ideas off of other teachers, I’m ready to post about it.

(But first, thanks to my co-teacher Sarah for helping come up with the game, my coworkers Cindy and Jenn and my Tweeps Max, Jami, and Jamie for playtesting.)

The idea behind the game came before I didn’t really have a good application for simplifying radicals. But I’ve been annoyed at how I see math games designed: do some math action and, if you are correct, you then get to do some game action. While this is certainly how some games work (like Trivial Pursuit), it just separates the math from the game and makes the math seem worthless. So I wanted a game where the math action WAS the game action.

You can read the rules of the game right here: Totally Radical Rules. During the game you have a choice of 5 actions: 3 involve actions we take when simplifying (breaking a number into two factors, taking a root and putting it outside the radical symbol, multiplying two terms together) while two are purely game actions (draw a card, play a special “Action” card).

Other touches of note: the factor cards are exactly half the size of the radicand cards, so that students break up “larger” numbers into “smaller” ones.

You can use factor cards on their own or combined into multi-digit numbers, like so:

(the top would be two factors, 2 and 5, and the bottom would be one factor, 25)
The numbers in the radicand cards are not just simple numbers. There’s prime numbers, composite numbers that can’t be simplified, perfect squares, as well as numbers that can be simplified (going all the way up to 250).

So, how can get this game, you may ask? Two ways!

Make It Yourself

If you want it for free, or are just in that #Made4Math mindset, you can print out the following files on card stock:

Prototype Factor Deck

Prototype Radicand Deck

Cut the cards out and label the backs. Print out the instructions (found here). You’ll also need to make a board: 4 big radical signs (I also recommend cardstock.) That might look something like this:

(I also drew in spots to put the card decks in).

Don’t want to make it or want the awesome one pictured above? Then go for option 2:

Buy It

I found this great website called The Game Crafter where you can send in artwork, pick out the pieces, etc, and they will print and construct the game for you. So if you click the button below, it should bring you to the shop to buy it.