Updated: Jul 17, 2018
Co written by Mr. Marshall Nych (Math lab K-6 teacher at Mercer Elementary) and Ms. Emily Wilson (Student teacher in the Math Lab with Mr. Nych)
There's nothing like trying something new, something outside of your comfort zone when there's twenty little pairs of eyes staring at you. I never expected to find myself in that situation. It was my third week of student teaching and I was supposed to make three digit subtraction exciting. While there are many ways to make subtraction exciting, I chose a different route- a breakout activity. In addition to the forty little eyes watching Wilson’s every move, there was also a pair of eyes belonging to her cooperating teacher – ME. When Emily shared her clever idea of a breakout activity, I immediately feared the worse and checked my face in a mirror. Prior to Wilson, the only breakout activity I was familiar with involved acne.
When one thinks of an exciting activity, they often don’t think of math. However, recently I was inspired to incorporate an escape room model into the classroom. Now, this isn't a new idea, I found a breakout activity from BreakoutEDU and adapted it to fit my needs. BreakoutEDU is a game platform that has all sorts of collaborative games that require students to solve puzzles to open a locked box. I had no clue how many subtraction problems these students could solve in thirty-five minutes. I didn’t know if they would even be able to get through the first lock. I spent all weekend preparing their worksheets with invisible ink. I overanalyzed every part of this lesson. I was so nervous that this whole lesson would crash and burn. Maybe the kids wouldn’t be engaged, maybe they would just quit because it was too hard. Nothing could have possibly prepared me for what would happen Monday morning.
Another facet of this lesson the reader couldn’t possible know (unless the audience happens to be an 8 year-old enrolled in the Mercer School District) was the hard-to-swallow pill that subtraction with regrouping was a math topic revisited by 2nd graders approximately 37 times already this academic year. To design a lesson that engaged the 2nd grade students, though they have small feet, would be no small feat.
So there I was with twenty second graders staring at me, about to convince them that the Cincinnati Zoo desperately needed us, in Mercer, PA, to help them rescue a penguin. Not only do they need our help, but they need us to solve some subtraction problems to unlock the food for the little penguin. With their first mission activity, they solved seven subtraction with regrouping problems. With the second, another four problems- and these were word problems! The last mission had another six problems. In all, that day those second graders solved eighteen subtraction problems.
Have you seen our northwest Pennsylvania winter? Penguins are not that far of a stretch! Equally as cool as penguins were the official mission folders, invisible spy ink, and engaging scientific videos. I felt like an Antarctic Math Spy…if there were such a thing.
The amazing thing was that they were into it; they thought it was a game! When I handed them their lock folder with clues, they looked at me with excitement as they proclaimed, “This is official!” They cheered with excitement every time they unlocked a lock. There were so many “lightbulb” moments as they figured out how the clues worked together. All my fears faded away as they left the classroom chattering and laughing about the fun they had. The extra work and risks that I took were worth it when I saw twenty second graders excited about math.
Miss Wilson’s hands-on, minds-on lesson not only incorporated technology, it was an experience fostering teamwork that made learning fun. One group who successfully saved the penguins had no idea they had just completed 17 subtraction with regrouping problems. The experience was not far removed from a caring parent somehow sneaking veggies into their child’s favorite meal. Let us hope, for child and penguin, the menu was not the same.