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With school starting up, I thought I’d share the most interesting icebreaker I found last year. Copy, cut, and pass out these half-sheets [pdf].


Each person in a group picks a dot and writes her name next to it.

Now the group’s job is to label the axes. Physical attributes don’t require all that much thought and don’t reveal all that much, so don’t allow them.

That’s it. It requires a surprising amount of creativity and conversation. Happy first day of school, teachers.

Previously. This Who I Am sheet, which I adapted from my first student-teaching placement, has been popular.

[I got this particular idea from a workshop I led with Jo Boaler, Kathy Sun, Jennifer Ruef. It may be a Complex Instruction staple for all I know. I'm not claiming ownership, just passing along the fun.]

2013 Aug 7. I am informed by Marty Joyce this icebreaker is from the College Preparatory Mathematics series.

2013 Aug 9. Rachel Rosales used the Math Forum’s Noticing / Wondering framework on her first day.

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Laura Hawkins:

I learned this from Carlos Cabana, at the Creating Balance conference at Mission HS in SF. I’ve used it with much success for a couple years now.

Be aware, however, that it can surface issues you might not be prepared to deal with. I teach at a private school, and there is huge income inequality between my kids’ families. This year, a group labeled one axis “number of bathrooms in my house” with the two quantities being 4 and “more than 4″. In my surprise, I don’t think I handled it well to support the kids in the class who might have just 1 or 2 bathrooms in their house and suddenly had their lack of wealth put in their face in math class.

Cathy Yenca:

I’ve used your “Who I Am” sheet for several years – after reviewing them, I file them away, then surprise students on the last day of school by returning them. They giggle at how much they’ve changed in 9 short months, often barely remembering filling out the page in the first place. The “self-portraits” are always a favorite to revisit.

Nathan Amrine:


Desire to read
# of hours spent swimming
# of summer vacations
Love of Ice Cream
# of pets
Distance from school

2013 August 13. First day activities around the web from:

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Joey Warren, with a nice modification:

I thought I would share with you an activity that I stole from you and adjusted a bit which worked out very well for my first day freshmen Alg students. I read your Personality Coordinates Ice breaker activity and made a little twist. I put the x and y axis on the ground and used the classroom for students to move around. I gave them different labels for the x-axis and y-axis and let them move around the room and meet each other and see who was similar to them and who was different. I used labels like desire to read, distance traveled this summer, and # of hours you sleep each night. It lead into some good movement and good discussions of where students traveled over the summer, what they read, etc. The best graph was “love for math” vs “desire to get better at math.” After they moved around I categorized students into ones that were going to be my project to get them to like math, ones that would be easy to teach, and the rest I was going to push further away from the origin to get them to love math more.

Tiny Math Games

Jason Dyer writes a very important post highlighting Tiny Games, a listing of games you can play quickly, almost anywhere, with only limited materials. He then pivots to ask about tiny math games.

Could one make an all-mathematics variant — mathematical scrimmages, so to speak?

His post, and Tiny Games, are important because they reject an article of faith of the blended learning and flipped classroom movements, that students must learn and practice the basic skills of mathematics before they can do anything interesting with them.

For example, here’s John Sipe, senior vice president of sales at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, talking about Fuse, their iPad textbook:

So teachers don’t have to “waste their time” on some of these things that they’ve always had to do. They can spend much more time on individualized learning, identifying specific student needs. Let students cover the basics, if you will, on their own, and let teachers delve into enrichment and individualized learning. That’s what the good teachers are telling me.

This is a bad idea. People don’t mind practicing a sport because playing the sport is fun. It’s easy to tell a tennis player to practice 100 serves from the ad side of the court, for instance, because the tennis player has mentally connected the acts of practicing tennis and playing tennis. The blended learning movement, at its worst, disconnects practice and play.

Take multiplication of one- and two-digit numbers for instance.

If you need to learn multiplication facts, one option is to watch a video and then drill away. Or we can queue up all that practice in a tiny math game that’ll have students playing as they practice:

Pick a number. Say 25. Now break it up into as many pieces as you want. 10, 10, and 5, maybe. Or 2 and 23. Twenty-five ones would work. Now multiply all those pieces together. What’s the biggest product you can make? Pick another. What’s your strategy? Will it always work? [Malcolm Swan]

Easy money says the student who’s practicing math while playing it will practice more multiplication and enjoy that practice more than the student who is assigned to drill practice alone.

Jason Dyer helpfully highlights two examples of tiny math games, Nim and Fizz-Buzz, but he and I are both struggling to define a “tiny math game.” The success of the Tiny Game Kickstarter project indicates serious interest in these tiny games. I’d like to see a similar collection of tiny math games. Here’s how you can help with that.

1. Offer Examples of Tiny Math Games

This may be tricky. We all have games we play in math class. What distinguishes those games from “tiny math games?”

2. Help Us Define “Tiny Math Games”

This may be a better starting point. I’ll add your suggestions to this list. Here are some seeds:

  • The point of the game should be concise and intuitive. You can summarize the point of these games in a few seconds or a couple of sentences. It may be complicated to continue playing the game or to win it, but it isn’t hard to start.
  • They require few materials. That’s part and parcel of being “tiny.” These games don’t require a laptop or iPhone.
  • They’re social, or at least they’re better when people play together.
  • They offer quick, useful feedback. With the multiplication game, you know you don’t have the highest product because someone else hollers out one that’s higher than yours. With Fizz-Buzz, your fellow players give you feedback when you blow it.
  • They benefit from repetition. You may access some kind of mathematical insight on individual turns but you access even greater insight over the course of the game. With Fizz-Buzz, for instance, players might count five turns and then say “Buzz,” but over time they may realize that you’ll always say “Buzz” on numbers that end in 5 or 0. That extra understanding (what we could call the “strategy” of these tiny math games) is important.
  • The math should only be incidental to the larger, more fun purpose of the game. I think this may be setting the bar higher than we need to, but Jason Dyer points out that people play Fizz-Buzz as a drinking game. [Jason Dyer]

What can you add to our understanding of tiny math games?

2013 Apr 17. Nobody wanted to tackle the qualities of tiny math games, which is fine since you all threw down a number of interesting games. I’ll be compiling those on a separate domain at some point soon.

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Jason Dyer elaborates on his contribution above.

Other teachers go in on the lie that students need basic skills before they can do anything interesting in their disciplines:

2013 Apr 24. Jason Dyer elaborates in another post.

If the deluge of interesting problem-based material on the Internet overwhelms you, as it does Jonathan Claydon, Geoff Krall’s curriculum maps are a great place to start. He’s taken the Common Core’s scope and sequence documents and combed the Internet for items that fit. He’s included a few of my own items, some items from the Shell Centre, along with a lot of great lesson ideas I’d completely forgotten. Bookmark it. Throw him some love in the comments.

I was walking with my wife along the River Corrib in Galway last weekend when we got into an argument that lasted the rest of the walk. I’ll present our two arguments and some illustrative video. Then I’d like you or your students to help sort us out.

Argument A: It would be much harder to swim to the other side of the river in the fast-moving water as in still water.

Argument B: It would be just as easy to swim to the other side of the river in the fast-moving water as in still water.

I hope this gets as out of hand for you and your students as it did for me and my wife.

Featured Comment

Scott Farrar:

This excellent question exhibits a quality that is not found often in math curricula: it has the “specificity sweet spot”: it is specific enough for a student to answer, but non-specific enough for every kid to agree on the answer. Students making different assumptions will have different responses, thus creating a real mathematical argument.

Odds / Ends

  1. Bill McCallum runs a “standard of the week” contest through his Illustrative Math Project, the goal of which is to illustrate what the different Common Core standards look like in student tasks. I submitted a task for 8.4.F, linear modeling, which was accepted. It’s called “Graduation” [pdf].
  2. Key Curriculum Press posted the Ignite talks from CMC-South. I did five minutes on the question, “When will I ever use this in the real world?

2012 Feb 18. Patti Smith used this task in class. Fun feedback:

My students finally understood the meaning of y-intercept as something more than “when it all began”. They also understood slope to mean rate – or how fast they read the names – rather than rise over run!

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