2012 Math Olympics

Last week was the first week back from Spring Break. Over the break, I took the feedback from the Survey your Students (earlier post) I gave and wanted to finish the school year in a different manner. I chose a class theme (which I'm not sure I've done before) to be the 2012 Math Olympics. I needed a fun way to spend the last 5 academic weeks with my 8th graders. I went to Target and the Dollar Store and found a few goldmine items for weekly events and "Gold medal" winners.

Last week's event, Jai Alai 
I wanted to both professionally and personally challenge myself to make improvements in the following areas:

Group & Discussion Based Learning:
I had to change the desk arrangement in my classroom. As you can see from the picture above, students are facing each other now instead of the interactive board. I did minimal direct instruction this week.
It was fantastic!
I wanted the groups to figure out and discuss examples before telling them how to answer, solve, or approach the examples. Kids are smart!
The students were put into homogeneous groups, having a range of mathamatical abilities. On Monday, they met their teammates, nominated a team captain, and picked a country from the list of participating countries in the 2012 Summer games. USA was not an option!
It took a couple of days for the students to warm-up to the discussion based learning, but by Thursday, they had made great strides (remember to praise them on Monday for this!)

Different Classroom Management Skills:
We take our 8th graders to Washington D.C. at the end of May. Therefore, the students have one giant foot out the door by this time of year. This past week, I saw a greater level of engagement and less need to remind students about learning. I have found myself in previous years sternly reminding them,
"It's imperative that you guys learn this if you're interested in getting into Geometry as a freshman."

The only thing I had to remind my students of this week was for their captain to report their good-will points to me before leaving. Good-will points are earned for displays of good sportsmanship in class by staying on task, helping another group, or scoring a point in Jai Alai. I kept track of good-will points on these cheap chalkboards I found at Target:

To earn Good-will points (and to avoid foul play) in Jai Alai, one team had to successfully pass the ball to another team so both teams received points. It was awesome to see them cheer each other on instead of making fun.

I found a highly successful warm-up activity this year that was based on assessing individual skills, called my favorite yes/no (video found here).

However, with the students in groups (countries), I transitioned my two-minute warm-up into a group task. I not only had great discussions going on, but kids were submitting their cards cheering for their country, writing...
"Go Fiji! Germany rocks! Go Tunisia!"
I loved that they took ownership of both their learning and their adopted country for the Math Olympics! (again, remember to praise them for this on Monday!)

Student Estimation and Prediction:
The daily two-minute warm-up also includes a question requiring estimation to answer it. Past examples include:
What year was the first cell phone call made?
How many In-n-Out Burgers are in California?
How many miles is the California coastline?
How many miles is it around the earth's equator?
Discussion following these questions has been quite valuable. They find the validity in guessing too low and too high and enjoy sharing the actual answers with family or friends throughout the day. I assigned homework on Monday for them to look up two fun facts about their country. I will use the facts they submitted throughout the next 4 weeks. I believe this will pay dividends... we'll see.

Incentive Based Learning:
I tread lightly in this arena. I have never been a big fan of handing out candy or giving small trophy awards for something I believe learning is, intrinsic. However, the second you toss candy in front of a middle schooler, it feels like the equivalent of feeding the dolphins at Sea World after performing a trick. My school banned the distribution of candy and I'm totally good with it. Let's be realistic though, every once in awhile, kids enjoy some type of reward, even if it's silly. They are kids after all.
On Monday, I will be awarding my Gold medal winners with glow bracelets I found at the dollar store. In order to win glow bracelets for your country, your group must have the highest exam average from the previous week. We learned parabolas this week, and I've seen some of the best understanding ever, which translated to great scores as well!

Lastly, our event for next week is Archery. I have a student-made target at the back of my room. After successfully answering questions, students will aim a giant foam rocket at the target to earn good-will points for their country next week. London 2012!!!