I’m not sure when I first became aware of the MathMunch website; I’m pretty certain I happened upon it before my attendance at TMC13 last summer. Wonderful resource that it is, I know I spent a fair number of hours perusing the collection of articles, games, art ideas and links. Last summer in Philadelphia, I not only attended a presentation on MathMunch, but had the opportunity to spend a few hours chatting with one of the founders, Justin Lanier (@j_lanier), as we drove back to Brooklyn after the conference. It was clear to me after this conversation that the spirit of MathMunch was in part underpinned by Justin’s deep belief in the uniqueness of each child’s educational requirements and rights (which led to his changing positions from already liberal St. Ann’s School in Brooklyn Heights to the even more open Princeton Learning Cooperative). So I knew HOW great a resource MathMunch was for students; the question now was how to enlighten them as to this web-based gold mine of mathematical enrichment.
While this question was still percolating in my mind, one of the MathTwitterBlogoSphere luminaries, Fawn Nguyen, came up with a simple and actionable plan: just make them do it! She designed a simple log form which required each student to visit the MathMunch website 15 times over the course of a marking period and sample 5 different types of activities: three each of games, articles, videos, art projects and puzzles. I decided to sincerely flatter Fawn yet again with imitation, and borrowed her log form with [very] minor revisions. My honors track Algebra 2 students were the target of this experiment; I learned the hard way that the attempt at something new and challenging would most likely be successful with your most motivated students. Sometime in early October, I showed them the TEDx video in which the MathMunch founders described the origin of the project, distributed the log form, and gave them a long window for completion (Winter Break). The assignment was not extra-credit, but I promised to include the grade in such a way that it would help their test averages.
A few students dipped their toes in the water by playing some games right away (how did I know that would be the immediate draw?). I cautioned them that only three games were allowed on their logs, and that their efforts needed to be spread among the five activities. We got caught up in the swing of radical equations, absolute value inequalities, quadratic functions, and November slipped by.
Weekly reminders were issued that 15 activities over 9 weeks was a minor assignment, whereas that same requirement in a few days would be highly stressful. Still, by Thanksgiving, I had only received a smattering of submissions. The log form I had created for myself to keep track of their work was depressingly empty.
On November 6, I received my first piece of MathMunch-inspired art – a hexaflexagon from Kimi. I was so touched and excited I demonstrated the uber-coolness of it to the class, and featured it on my 180 photo blog. Kimi was the first – but certainly not the last – of my students to encounter the brilliance of Vi Hart’s videos. As a matter of fact, if you visit her Thanksgiving Turduckenen-duckenen video, you will find a host of comments authored by my Algebra 2 kiddies. And then, over Thanksgiving weekend, I received this message from Anson, a student who, lucky for me, has been in my class for two semesters now.
On fire! Anson was ON FIRE with MathMunch. You know that feeling when you assign a project and you aren’t quite sure that your students will get out of it that which you had hoped? Well, Anson dispelled that feeling for me with that one line. There was still a modicum of doubt because his comments were all about games, until I received this note from him, a couple of weeks later. The best thing about this message was that he left MathMunch to look for similar resources, and felt compelled to share them with me.
Still, things did not begin to pick up steam until the second week of December, when I began to receive snowflakes and origami daily. I treated each submission as the treasure that it was, pausing in class to thank the students for their lovely work. But it wasn’t just snowflakes and origami that I received. Many students became fascinated with the Fascinating Wooden Puzzle video, but Stephanie recreated it for me. Nicholas, whose math was spot on but whose handwriting is illegible, created computer art. Diana, whose work is impeccable and rolls her eyes every time I tell her to stop texting [does she REALLY think I don’t know why she has her book standing up on her desk?] ran into class one day, and was practically stammering when she told me how the video How to Create Chocolate Out of Nothing blew her away. By the time I left school on December 20, my log looked like this.
I brought home a shopping bag full of student MathMunch art, which made my dining room table look very cheery. I am overwhelmed with the effort and excellence in some of their work, and am going to ask my principal for a small display case in which to showcase their work – a nice contrast and complement to athletic trophies, in my opinion. I want to find a way to leave the students not only with pride in their efforts, but with the curiosity and impetus to continue their readership of MathMunch. I am sure that some of them just slogged through the checklist and were relieved when they were finished. But I know that there were some, like Kimi, Anson, Stephanie and Diana, whose mathematical curiosity was piqued and challenged. And then there is Michelle, who never says a word but does exemplary math. She gave me these beautiful works of art. I know I touched something in her.