New Beginnings Part Two

Last post, I shared some of my favorite ways to get the school year started, as well as activities to help develop your classroom norms and begin building your own mathematical community. I loved how positively our Open Up Resources 6–8 Math users reacted to the post, and how many reached out to me with ideas of their own.

There is a wealth of real classroom experience in our Facebook Group and through our chats on Twitter. Today, it is my pleasure to share some tried and true Back to School activities from some of our awesome Open Up Resources 6–8 Math Teachers.


Puzzle Challenge

Morgan Stipe, Kuemper Catholic School District, Carroll, IA

After establishing norms and expectations during the first week of school, I like to present the “Math Team-Building Puzzle Challenge” to my students. Basically, students work at tables of four, but they complete the challenge with a partner. The goal is to arrange the numbers in an array so that rows have the same sum and columns have the same sum. Each pair is given a set of cards, where each set is on a different color of paper. As students work, they notice that it’s impossible to complete the puzzle, except when the two sets of cards are combined. This activity is great for discussions around growth mindset, risk-taking, and teamwork, while I get to observe those qualities in my students as they work! We also get to review our adherence to our classroom norms and expectations after the challenge.


Cups Challenge

Martin Joyce, Taylor Middle School, Millbrae, CA

I utilize the name tents that were discussed in Part 1 of this blog, but also love having kids complete the “cups challenge”. It is a great opportunity for the kids to communicate and work cooperatively with a hands on activity and also introduces team roles for working in a group of four. Basically, the kids have to work together in groups of four to stack their cups without touching them. I also print out the team role cards by David Griswold. These cards and the associated suit is how they find out which group they are in and what their role is within the group. I plan to do this everyday (VRG or Visual Random Grouping) handing them a card as they enter class.


Math Autobiography

Kent Haines, Ira F Simmons Middle School, Hoover, AL

My favorite back-to-school activity is a math autobiography. Each year, I give my students about 25 minutes on the third day of class to write their personal history with math, warts and all. I learn so much about the painful math background that so many of my students have, which helps me gear up to make this year a better experience for everyone.



Alex Otto, Kodiak Island Borough School District, Kodiak, AK

Improv is an underutilized strategy in math class. Improv, especially when it becomes humorous, is a great engagement strategy; students don’t want to miss a beat. In the first week of my 6th grade math classes, we talk as a class about what “justify” means. We brainstorm situations in which students may need to justify something to a parent, teacher, or friend. Students have no trouble coming up with ideas. We pick a scenario from our list and students do a role play with a partner. The partner’s job is to push back and develop counterexamples by using phrases such as, “I’m not sure . . . convince me . . . but what if . . .” In effect, students are using familiar and creative contexts to develop their ability to “construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others,” one of the Standards for Mathematical Practice (MP3). This is the kind of classroom I want, one in which students are at the front and center, convincing each other, questioning each other, listening to each other, and inviting each other into dialogue. We talk about how these strategies will be a foundational piece in our classroom when we tackle math problems. I will often refer to these improv scenarios later in the year when students are working with challenging math problems, reminding students, “This is just like when you tried to convince your parents that you wanted that pet monkey in our role play! Really try to justify your idea to your group!”


The Math Curse

Casey McCormick, Our Lady of the Assumption School, Carmichael, CA

Like Brooke, I love starting the year with Sara’s 100 Numbers Activity. It was a huge hit last year, and it allowed us to name some norms that we wanted for our math class—a class that would be unlike the math classes they have had in the lower grades. I will also do a “Math About Me” activity and read the book, The Math Curse. In “Math About Me,” I decorate a sheet of paper with a drawing of myself (stick figures at their finest) in the middle and 8 sections around the perimeter. In each of the 8 boxes I put a number and a drawing about something that represents me. It is a well-known fact that I always use the number 12 because I love Tom Brady, but last year the class couldn’t believe it when one of the numbers was my number of twitter followers. This activity helps the students get to know me as they guess what the numbers mean, and then for homework they create their own to help me get to know them. It goes in their notebook as a cover page. The Math Curse, by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith is a story of a little boy who starts to see math everywhere and starts thinking about everything in his life as a math problem. It’s a fun book and I like to start with that to show them that they are going to start to see math differently, too. However, I also tell them I prefer to call the book “The Math BLESSING,” not Curse.


Your First Days

I hope you were able to gather some ideas and encouragement from all of the ideas shared in this two-part series. I still want to see and hear all about your first days of school! Be sure to share your stories, pictures, and videos from the first days in your classroom in both our Facebook Group and on Twitter.  No one tells the Open Up Resources 6–8 Math story better than you!