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Student Teaching Innovation: Breaking out of the worksheet to help the baby penguin

Updated: May 15

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) 


I never thought I'd find myself in a situation where I had to teach three-digit subtraction to a class of twenty children. It was my third week of student teaching, and I wanted to make the lesson more engaging. So, I decided to try a new approach - a breakout activity.

Stepping into the Breakout Challenge: A Tale of Excitement

While I was excited about the idea, I was also nervous because the classroom's supervising teacher was watching me closely. I checked my reflection in the mirror, hoping to look confident and prepared. Before working with Wilson's class, I had only heard of a breakout activity in the context of acne.

Another important aspect of this lesson that the reader may not know (unless they happen to be an 8-year-old enrolled in the Mercer School District) is that subtraction with regrouping had already been revisited by 2nd graders approximately 37 times in the current academic year. Designing a lesson that would engage 2nd grade students, despite their age and experience with the topic, was no easy 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 subtractions 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.

Student Teaching Innovation

Have you experienced the winter in northwest Pennsylvania? It's so cold that penguins wouldn't be out of place here! I recently came across some really cool things - official mission folders, invisible spy ink, and engaging scientific videos. It made me feel like a Math Spy in Antarctica if such a thing existed.

Amazingly, they were into it; they thought it was a game! When I handed them their lock folder with clues, they excitedly looked at me 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 I took were worth it when I saw twenty-second graders excited about math.

Engaging Technology-Infused Learning Experience: Saving Penguins through Math

Miss Wilson’s hands-on, minds-on lesson not only incorporated technology but also fostered teamwork and made learning fun. One group that successfully saved the penguins had no idea they had just completed 17 subtraction problems with regrouping. The experience was not far removed from a caring parent somehow sneaking veggies into their child’s favorite meal. Let us hope, for the child and penguin, the menu was not the same.

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