You are here

Math Cats Math Chat Image

A Student-Led Math Family Fun Night:
Learning from
The Planning Process
(Page 2)



Students adapt their plans to accommodate all ages, keeping the focus on family.

We wanted the evening to be fun and stimulating for all ages. With siblings ranging from infants to high schoolers, and at least one parent -- and sometimes grandparents as well -- coming with each student, we would need to present activities embracing a wide range of skills and interests.

As one class developed a Math Bingo room, in which participants would need to do some mental math to arrive at each number, students thought about how to support third-graders who are just learning their multiplication and division facts, or younger siblings who might not be able to do two-digit addition and subtraction in their heads. The students decided to provide multiplication grids and hundred squares to help younger students, and they would encourage family teams to help one another.

About the Author

Wendy Petti is the creator of the award-winning Math Cats Web site, author of Exploring Math with MicroWorlds EX (LCSI, 2005), and a frequent presenter at regional and national math and technology conferences. She teaches grade 4 math at Washington International School.

For our estimation jars, we would permit one guess per jar per family to encourage family discussion of their estimates. In student-designed games with family teams calling out or holding up answers -- games such as Family Function Feud and Football Scoring Game -- we decided that each family must agree on an answer and only a child would be permitted to share the family's response.

We also tried to select activities that would offer some element of surprise or challenge to all ages, such as computer activities calling on estimation or algebraic thinking skills, and physical activities like a "jump off" involving predicting, jumping, and measuring. In our room of math arts and crafts, we decided to provide templates for some and instructions for creating the templates from scratch for those wanting a greater challenge or wishing to follow up at home.

As students with very young siblings considered how to include even babies and toddlers in the evening, they developed a Baby Math corner, a blanketed area where the youngest math explorers could play with too-large-to-swallow foam geometric shapes, and perhaps students could measure the little ones' feet or overall length.


Students find math learning opportunities in the real world.

Math Family Fun Night has heightened students' awareness of math in the world around them. As students brainstormed ideas for estimation jars, and thought about refreshments, we had to bear in mind our limited budget for the evening. Rather than set up one refreshment room, we decided to set up several. In the "SeeSaw Balancing Room," visitors might estimate and then check the weight of their cookies, crackers, and drinks on pan balances. In another room, visitors may opt to measure the perimeter of their tortilla chips.

Izzy came in one day with a printout of a dodecahedron calendar (with twelve pentagon-shaped faces, one month printed on each face), found as she searched for a 2007 calendar. We thought it would be fun to include a similar student-drawn calendar in our math packets. We printed a blank dodecahedron template and Izzy drew the calendar for each month on the twelve faces, leaving room for students to add their own decorations around the edges. She suggested that we also include a blank dodecahedron in each family packet, so families could have the fun of decorating their own.


Students support one another as learners and teachers and grow in confidence.

In the class exploring other bases, Olwenn kept saying, "I don't get it." One student after another attempted an explanation. Some students began to get a bit exasperated, but we reminded ourselves that if the concept was hard for some of us to understand after several days, it surely would be challenging for third-grade students to grasp in just a few minutes during our evening of math fun. We needed to figure out the simplest, clearest ways to help others grasp this new concept.

Using base 5 and making a chart to represent pennies, nickels, and quarters seemed to help, as well as sharing simple examples before moving to larger numbers. Olwenn finally had an "aha!" moment and waved her hand in the air to answer a problem. The class cheered for her. Then, another student confessed she still didn't get it, and Olwenn leaped up to explain it to her and present the next example. When it came time to sign up for activities, Olwenn proudly waved her hand to be a leader in the "Bases to Bases" room.

As the big night neared, students practiced leading activities. Some needed to explain game rules; some guided a brief inquiry into a math mystery, as in the "One-Sided Paper" and "Stepping Through Paper" rooms; others practiced projecting a computer-based game or exploration, in which each family decides on a response and then competes against the other families in the room, or the families together agree on a whole-room response; and still others practiced how they would help informally as participants make math arts and crafts or explore with number balances and pan balances.

The various leadership roles call on different skills. As students practiced their roles, some wrote out a paragraph of what they planned to say, while others winged it. If a student leader spoke too softly, we sometimes plugged our ears and urged the quiet ones to speak louder until we all could hear clearly. Some students suggested how instructions could be clarified or provided questions student leaders might ask participants. As groups of students visited the third grade classrooms to promote the evening, they gained extra confidence in speaking to groups.

When we first began planning for Math Family Fun Night, lots of students wanted to be greeters at the school door, shying away from the thought of leading an activity. As the big night neared, more and more students wanted to lead activities, and we barely held onto a few students still willing to greet. The students exuded enthusiasm and confidence.


Students learn time management and organizational skills.

When I asked some of my students what theyve learned from the process of planning a Math Family Fun Night, some mentioned the new math ideas they've explored. Most responses, though, focused on time management and organization. In terms of developing the activities, "We needed to be supportive and accept all ideas," said Rebecca. "And you need a point where you have to stop collecting ideas and organize the ones you have." Others stressed, "You need a good amount of time to plan." They needed to keep a brisk pace for each activity, too, and be ready to hand it off to a new leader when their 20-minute time block was up.


The teacher learns, too!

Planning for our first Math Family Fun Night has let me see which aspects of our curriculum have captured the students' attention. I was impressed when one class opted to turn our brief fall unit on functions into a game, "Family Function Feud," in which a student hides in a decorated cardboard box serving as a function machine. Families pass numbers (inputs) into the box and see what comes out, and then compete to figure out the hidden function rule(s) inside the box.

Building a function machine."

When the "Yesterday's Math" class was considering how to turn information on ancient math into an activity, I asked if they might want to include ancient games, such as Mancala. "No, there's really not any math in that," they said, and ended up developing "Bases to Bases" instead.

Another class wanted to provide time and space for families to write "math love letters" from one math operation or term to another, as they had enjoyed doing in the fall.

I had hoped we'd have a range of activities, including math crafts, explorations, games involving math and critical thinking skills, and computer-based activities. I had not even thought about ensuring that all five NCTM content standards were addressed. But the students' mathematical interests were diverse enough to encompass all five content standards, and the five process standards too, without any special interventions on my part.

I've always tried to cultivate a classroom environment where students are active learners and have some opportunities to explore math in open-ended and creative ways. I've encouraged collaborative learning. And we're all aware of the enticement of games to engage students. But when students themselves are developing learning games and activities, and preparing to teach and lead not just their peers, but family learners of all ages, it's a whole new level of excitement. Ive never seen anything close to this level of engagement in the learning process. It has been an incredible collaboration, full of surprises and rewards for all.

Be sure to also see A Student-Led Math Family Fun Night: The Logistics, Wendy Petti's step-by-step guide to planning a student-led Math Family Fun Night at your school.

Return to page 1.