What can we do in the first weeks of school to set the stage for the coming year? Are there skills that may need revisited after the summer break? Is there information we’d like to gather about our students to help us plan our early lessons? Are there messages about mathematics that we want to share from the very first day of school?
The first days of school set a tone for the coming school year. Greeting our students with worksheets does not send a positive or inviting message about what students can expect during the coming year. Math is about sense-making, reasoning, modeling, and problem solving. Math is interactive. It is something to think about and talk about. And math should promote curiosity and joy. How can we revisit prior skills and assess our students’ current understandings, all while engaging our students in thinking and talking about math and providing interactive experiences that reflect positivity and joy? Math games are a great way to start the school year!
Using Games to Revisit Important Skills
Without a doubt, our students benefit from some skill review at the start of the year. How might we use math games to revisit some of the skills and concepts from the prior year’s curriculum? What do our students remember? Which skills may need a nudge? Which skills or concepts might need clarified or retaught? Selecting games that highlight previously-taught skills allows students to revisit the skills in a relaxed way that is less intimidating that traditional paper-pencil assignments. And partner games allow students to revisit the skills with the support of a peer.
Math skills are taught in a progression. Each year a bit more complexity is added to the skills. What math skills will you be teaching this year and which foundational skills, that were taught last year, will help students better understand the new skill or concept? For example, we might play games to review doubles facts (e.g. 6 + 6) in anticipation of upcoming lessons in which our students use these facts to further their fact fluency with facts that are near doubles (e.g. 6 + 7).
In anticipation of beginning a study of multiplication, students might play a game to revisit previously-explored arrays and repeated addition equations. Students might take turns rolling 2 dice. For a roll of 3 and 5, the player uses counters to show an array of 3 rows of 5 and records the addition equation and sum. Partners then compare to see who has the greater sum. Players continue to roll, create models, draw and write equations, and compare sums to revisit their previous experiences in preparation for using that same array model for their introduction to multiplication equations.
In preparation for more advanced fraction concepts, we might revisit students’ understanding of fractions through games that require fraction comparisons. A simple game, like the following, can provide an opportunity for students to revisit strategies for comparing fractions. Each player rolls 2 dice and uses the numbers rolled to create a fraction with a value less than 1. Players then use models or reasoning to compare their fraction to a partner’s fraction to decide which fraction is greater. Players continue to roll, create models, implement strategies, and discuss the fraction values as they revisit prior learning in preparation for more complex fraction concepts.
Math Games as an Assessment Tool
It is amazing how much information can be gathered about students’ understanding from rotating through the room, watching and listening to their game play! As we observe, listen, and make note of students’ strengths and needs, we gain valuable information to determine what might need reviewed or retaught in order to make our coming year more successful. Watching students play the fraction game allows us to see the strategies they use as they compare (e.g., reasoning, using number lines or bar models, finding common numerators or denominators) and gives a strong indication of their understanding of fractions.
Collecting written work provides one more bit of evidence to consider. Collecting students’ game boards or recording sheets offers evidence of their skills and strategies. This data can then be used to determine topics for whole-class reviews, small-group sessions, or the selection of the next set of games.
Games as a Way of Sending Positive Math Messages
What message does incorporating game play at the start of the school year send to our students? Of course, a clear message is that math can be fun! But along with the fun, students communicate and work together as they play math games, emphasizing the critical roles of collaboration and communication. Following student play, teacher-led debriefing might focus on the value of perseverance, the acknowledgement that mistakes are okay, that speed is not our goal, or that strategies trump answers. From the start of the year, our messages about mathematics are positive and our math tasks promote math joy!
Selecting Math Games
So, what do we look for when selecting math games? I love partner games, both because of the value of students talking about their thinking and hearing the thinking of others, but also because their talk allows me to hear their thinking! I love games that include some reasoning and decision making rather than simply recall. I stay away from games that use speed to determine the winner, as they send the wrong message to our students that speed is more important that strategies. And I will not utilize games that eliminate students for wrong answers. Those students who have been eliminated are often the students who most need the practice and who would benefit from experiences that build their confidence rather than tear it down.
Math games provide opportunities for content review, formative assessment, and discussions about math beliefs and values. The tasks you choose for the first weeks of school send a message to your students about what you value in your classroom. The use of math games can assure students that we support them if they have forgotten, that we value reasoning over speed, and that they will be engaged and find joy in math class this year. And observing students as they play games provides us with valuable formative assessment to guide our math planning from day #1.