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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

17 Favorite Classroom-Learning Games

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 16, 2022 12 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
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(This is the first post in a two-part series.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are your favorite classroom games?

I’m taking a break from finishing the series on teacher observations and, instead, sharing this series on classroom-learning games.

In the midst of the pandemic, I’m finding games an essential part of classroom instruction. They serve two (and many more) purposes: engagement in learning and distraction from COVID.

Today, Shannon Jones, Jennifer Bay-Williams, Molly Ness, and Sheniqua Johnson share their favorites.

You might also be interested in several game collections I’ve created. You can find all the updated lists here, and here are a few key ones:

The Best Online Learning Games to Play During Distance Learning

The Best Ideas for Using Games in the ESL/EFL/ELL Classroom

The Best Websites for Creating Online Learning Games

Now, to today’s guests:

Math Games

Shannon Jones is a 15-year educator working in Wheaton, Md. She is a focus teacher for students in kindergarten through 5th grades. She can be reached at shannon.l.jones@mcpsmd.net or @MsJonesLuvsMath:

Learning games are an effective way for students to review current and previously taught content. Zaretta Hammond states that: “The very act of playing the game encourages the brain to strengthen the new neural pathways by making the learner continuously search his memory for information.” I typically use learning games during my small-group time. I also may use them at the beginning of a lesson to spark engagement and raise the energy level in my classroom.

The text Mini-lessons for Math Practice by Rusty Bresser and Caren Holtzman is full of quick and engaging math games that are great for brain breaks in the classroom and time fillers for the very end of the school day. Several of my favorites from this text include: Digit Place, Estimation Jar, Whole-Class Pig, and Guess My Rule.

Mall Math from The Great Big Book of Super-Fun Math Activities’ Jean Liccione is year after year one of my students’ favorite games. Students are provided with a menu of items from different stores at the mall that they can buy. Students use the spinner to choose a store from which to buy or return items. The game reinforces adding and subtracting decimals, but the students love the shopping and choosing aspect.

Battleship can be played with either the coordinate grid system or place value. In the place-value version, each player builds a secret nine-digit number, and students take turns guessing the place value of their partner’s digits. This is a great way to fortify knowledge of place value because students are required to use place-value language on each of their turns.

Rio, from A Month-to-Month Guide: Fourth-Grade Math by Lainie Schuster or the game Knock It Off are games that focus on the most challenging of the multiplication facts. Typically, I choose the 6s, 7s, 8s, or 9s to set up the board due to the challenging nature of these facts. Focusing on just one set of facts at a time, students roll a 12-sided dice or find the sum of two six-sided dice, then they multiply their number by 6, 7, 8, or 9 depending on the game board they’ve chosen. They win by using all of their 10 “chips.”

Fraction War is played with the same rules as the popular card game War. Students have a deck of like or unlike fractions. They take turns flipping over a card, then they compare the size of their fractions to determine a winner for each round.

Minecraft and Fortnite are currently very popular with my students, and it is always great when you can take a current trend that is in demand with your students and turn it into a game that meets one of your grade-level standards. The figures from Minecraft can be printed in color on 10 by 10 or 5 by 10 grids. Students can then work in learning centers to determine the fraction, decimal, and percent that is shaded. With Fortnite, print the map in either one or four quadrants, and students can work to find the coordinates of given places and their reflections, etc.

Some of my favorite online games include: Nearpod’s Time to Climb, Kahoot, Quizziz, and Blooket. My students enjoyed each of these games during virtual learning. All of these games can easily be played in the classroom, with some even offering a self-paced version that is ideal for independent learning in the classroom.

learninggamesshannon

Game Criteria

Jennifer Bay-Williams works with preservice and practicing teachers as a professor at the University of Louisville and with teachers all over the world through conferences and workshops. She is the author of over a dozen books, including two books with Corwin Press Figuring Out Fluency in Mathematics Teaching and Learning, K-8 and Everything You Need for Mathematics:

I love games. My favorite games involve mathematical reasoning. Over the years, I have found and created hundreds of games. Today, as I select or create games, here is what I consider.

  • Is there a speed component? If yes, it is a “no” for me. When students are in a hurry, they can’t think straight. You can probably relate.
  • Are students solving the same problem? Well, this goes back to the last bullet. If two or more people are solving the same problem, the faster thinker dominates the thinking in the game. This is a “no” for me.
  • How is winning determined? If it is based on who knows more, or is faster, or any other personal attribute, then this is a “no” for me. No student should feel less “smart” than the person they are partnered with, even if they are competing to win a game.

With a scan for these three pitfalls, here is short list of what I hope to find, or that I build in, to games that make the cut:

  • Student reasoning is embedded. Many games have strategies to win the games, but what I want in a game is reasoning strategies related to the mathematics.
  • Students can learn from their opponent or partner as they play.
  • I (and other teachers) can see and hear student reasoning as they play.
  • It is adaptable and reusable (so we don’t get bogged down in a new game taking time to learn the directions).

A few favorites. It is really hard to pick, but here are two that I hold up for different reasons.

Rectangle Fit. Students have grid paper (e.g., 25 by 15). The teacher rolls two die, which are the sides of a rectangle. Students fit that rectangle on their grid paper and record the product inside that rectangle. Teacher rolls again. Eventually, the teacher rolls something like 5 and 6, and some students cannot fit that rectangle on their grid. These students are out of the game. Winners are the last ones still playing.

Why I like this game: It connects visual representation to multiplication facts and helps students “see” commutativity. It is easily adaptable—use regular die for smaller products, 10-sided die for larger; you can even adapt to decimals! Change the grid size. Play with a group of six instead of the whole class. Oh, yeah, and kids love it (just today I received such a message from a teacher in summer school):

williamsphoto

Photo by Jennifer Bay-Williams

Strategories: This is not a misspelling but an adaptation of a popular game. Students are given a recording card with strategies listed and a blank cell to write in an example problem. For adding fractions, the card looks like this:

strategories

To begin, students work individually to create a problem that “fits” that strategy. Then, students find a partner and talk through how to solve their own problem (or alternatively, talk through how to solve their partner’s problem). Students can have a different partner for each strategory. If you want to score it, you can score a correct process and correct answer each at 5 points.

Why I like this game: Real fluency is knowing when a strategy is a good idea—AKA flexibility. Flexibility is a neglected component of fluency! As students create a problem, they are thinking about when they would use it. The pair-exchange is great peer teaching, active movement, built in accountability, and 100 percent participation. As follow-up, I can ask partners to describe how their two examples are alike (comparing is so important in math learning) or focus on nonexamples (What problems don’t “fit” a strategory?)

A word has yet to be used in this response that is almost always used in response to the question, Why use games? “Fun.” Games are fun. I love fun. Math should be fun. But fun is an outcome, not a purpose. My favorite games happen to be fun, but they are my favorites because of the opportunities for students to engage in meaningful practice, show off their good reasoning, and learn with and from each other, realizing along the way that everyone can do math.

myfavoritegameswilliams

Literacy Games

Molly Ness is a teacher educator and author of four books about English/language arts instruction, the most recent titled Every Minute Matters: 40+ Activities for Literacy-Rich Classroom Transitions. She sits on the board of directors for the International Literacy Association. You can reach her at molly@drmollyness.com, www.drmollyness.com, or @drmollyness on Twitter:

Elementary educators know how important it is to infuse fun into your classroom routines—and we know time is precious. Yet there are so many spaces throughout the day when we have transition times: starting the day, lining up for an assembly, waiting for buses, and even small spaces when lessons take less time than we’d planned. Instead of turning to worksheets to fill those spaces, teachers I work with play with language in those transition times throughout the day.

Remember the childhood favorite Battleship, where you would place your plastic ships in pegs without your opponent seeing? The goal was to sink your opponent’s ships using horizontal and vertical coordinates. Sink or Spell is an engaging adaptation. In this version, students use their spelling and/or vocabulary words as their ships. Simply make a 10 x 10 grid, with numbers running horizontally and letters running vertically. Glue two of these sheets inside a file folder and laminate (so it’s reusable and ready to go for many games!). Students play in pairs, so both players get folders. Give students a list of words (this is a great review activity!), and each player secretly chooses five words from the list and writes them on their board—horizontally or vertically (but not backward or diagonal). Players take turns calling out coordinates (for example, C7). If a player’s opponent has a letter in that box, the opponent says, “Hit” and tells the other player what letter is in the box. If the box is empty, the child says, “Miss.” Players may guess the word or continue to guess coordinates. To sink a word, the player must correctly spell the word—and they get bonus points for defining it, using in a sentence, etc.

Use a label maker or printing labels to adapt a Jenga game into a literacy-rich version of Tower Tumble. Write vocabulary words, sight words, or homophones on each block. Students pull a block, read the word, define it and/or use it in a sentence, and then place it on the topmost level. The game ends when the tower tumbles!

I’m all for getting kids up and active, and kids love doing this with Beach Ball Bonanza. Hit up the dollar store and buy inflatable beach balls. Using a permanent marker, write open-ended prompts on each section of the ball. Ideas include the following:

  • Sight words
  • Comprehension questions: “What’s your favorite character in the book … and why?”
  • Prompts for vocabulary: “Use it in a sentence” or “Here’s a synonym”

Model soft throws (this isn’t dodgeball!) and how to read the prompt closest to your right thumb. When kids catch the ball, they read the prompt underneath and share their answer, before gently tossing it to a classmate. To use this as a vocabulary-review activity, call out the word while the ball is in midair. So if the word is furious, a child might catch the ball, see the prompt under their right thumb is “Give an antonym for the word,” and answer happy before tossing the ball to a friend.

Creating a fun, literacy-rich classroom is a win-win, especially when you infuse games into those “found moments” throughout the day.

creatingafunmolly

Kahoot, Jenga, & More

Sheniqua Johnson is a language-acquisition specialist in north Texas:

The classroom-learning games I enjoy the most allow students to be interactive while applying their knowledge or having the opportunity to review academic-vocabulary terms, problem-solving skills, or concepts. These games include Draw Me, Headbands, Kahoot, and Jenga.

Draw Me: Students practice and apply knowledge of academic-vocabulary terms by drawing visuals of the terms and allowing players to guess the term.

Headbands: Students review knowledge of academic-vocabulary terms by placing a term over their heads while players give clues until the person holding the term guesses correctly.

Kahoot: Interactive game through an app. Provides immediate feedback for teacher to plan small-group interventions. This game can be played independently or with small groups.

Jenga: Academic-vocabulary terms are written or placed on game pieces. As students choose pieces to remove from the tower, they must define words or answer questions, such as, word problems.

theclassroomgamessheniqua

Thanks to Shannon, Jennifer, Molly, and Sheniqua for contributing their thoughts!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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