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A Student-Led Math Family Fun Night:
Learning from
The Planning Process

"Math Family Fun Night is where we prove to people that math can be fun," 9-year-old Noa told a recent classroom visitor.

Let's rewind that sentence and play it again! "Math Family Fun Night is where we prove to people that math can be fun." In a student-planned, student-led math night, it's the students who do the proving. Our role as teachers is to empower students, providing gentle guidance, but mostly stepping out of the way as they step up.

In recent weeks, Ive watched and marveled as my four classes of fourth-grade math students each have planned three activity rooms for our upcoming (weather-delayed) math night for students in grades 3 and 4 and their families. The planning process has given me a window into what my students have enjoyed most and valued in their school math experiences this year, and it has given them a chance to consider how to share what matters to them in fun and creative ways. It also has been a chance for some of my classes to pursue new mathematical inquiries along the way, propelled by their own curiosity and "need to know."


Students brainstorm and build on one another's ideas.

As students excitedly shared ideas during each class's first brainstorming session, certain ideas gained momentum in each class. One class mentioned money, and a cascade of money-related ideas spilled out:
"Funny money!"
"Put real money in a bag and guess how much there is."
"Money Madness: Throw fake money from one side of the room to the other."
"Money Cake: Pull on strings and money comes out."
"A poker activity"
"Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?"
"Wheel of Fortune"
"Money Mountain: Count as much money as you can and make a mountain of it."
The students also remembered when we had made a spreadsheet in the fall to look at what happens to compound interest over long periods of time.

The other classes didn't mention money at all in their brainstorming, but money became the focus of one activity planned by this class.


Students pursue their own mathematical inquiries.

In another class, one day late in our brainstorming process, Daniel looked at the cover of our workbook, Today's Math, and asked, "Is there a 'Yesterday's Math'?" I said there wasn't such a workbook, but Yesterday's Math" sounded like a great idea for one of our activity rooms. The students researched ancient math systems for homework that evening. The next day, as they started sharing what they had found on Mayan math, Babylonian math, and more, they were puzzled as they encountered other bases for the first time, along with unfamiliar formats for representing large numbers. We spent a few class sessions exploring other bases and learning how to convert from one base to anothernot because the curriculum said so, but because the students had found their own need to know.


Students collaborate to refine and develop an idea into a specific activity.

In the class full of money ideas, a specific idea gradually took shape: combining the ideas of funny money, spinning a wheel, getting more money, and compound interest. The activity became, "Wheels of Interesting Interest." The students decided they would need three wheels, for the amount of money, percentage of interest, and number of years. The remains of an old Christmas tree, shorn of its branches and spray-painted in bright colors, became the wheels' stand.

Banking on an interest in money.

There would be a chance of losing half their money, as well as chances for substantial gains. We would need funny money. Students suggested that everyone should get some funny money -- in their math packets when they first arrived for the evening, and after visiting each activity room. The other classes liked the idea of funny money, and students in this class designed the bills. We realized that some combinations of generous percentage and lengthy years of compound interest might mean gains of hundreds of thousands of dollars, or even millions! We didn't want to photocopy that much funny money, so they designed funny checks, too.

In the class exploring "Yesterday's Math" and other bases, students realized they were out of time to plan activities on ancient math, since they still were grappling with the concept of other bases. The "Yesterday's Math" idea would keep for our next Math Family Fun Night. Instead, they zeroed in on other bases and began planning a "Bases to Bases" game, in which family teams would compete to convert numbers from base 5 to base 10 or from base 10 to base 5, with a brief mini-lesson on bases before each game.


We all love surprises!

My students have enjoyed the idea that theyre creating surprise activities for their friends in other classes, and that they will be surprised, too, when they visit other rooms on the big night. They will all have chances to be both teachers and learners.

Continued on page 2.