Thursday, December 10, 2015

Bob Sprankle, Creative Genius

For a few months this year, Math Playground had the good fortune to collaborate with Bob Sprankle on a number of projects. While the team may have only doubled in size, its passion and creativity more than quadrupled. Bob's energy seemed limitless and his enthusiasm was powerfully infectious. I was excited about Math Playground's future in a way I hadn't felt before. Passion was the very essence of Bob. He gave 100% to everything he did. You heard it in his podcasts. You felt it during his presentations. You saw it in his art. That was one of Bob's greatest gifts. His passion inspired all of us to do better, to accomplish more than we ever imagined possible.

My very first encounter with Bob was a bit unusual. The year was 2007 and, like many in the ed-tech community, I was spending a lot of time exploring the potential of virtual worlds. One day, an avatar named Bisto Bock flew into my neighborhood and landed on my roof. We started talking about children and programming and the many ways that technology was going to transform education. Eventually, I learned I had been talking to Bob Sprankle who I'd known from his Bit by Bit blog and podcasts. Shortly after, we had the opportunity to meet face to face at the BLC conference in Boston. We stayed in touch over the years, keeping up with one another's projects.

About a year ago, I began to notice Bob's artwork. I told Bob how much I loved his drawings and asked him if he'd like to create illustrations for children's games. Boy, did he ever! Bob could hardly contain his excitement. Over the next few weeks, our simple collaboration grew into a partnership and Bob became the Creative Director at Math Playground. He was on top of the world. Bob found a job where he could do the things he loved, for the students he loved, from the comfort of his home. It was a blessing for both of us. I was thrilled to be working with someone as creative, passionate, and knowledgeable as Bob. We poured our hearts and souls into this new collaboration - math podcasts, the Zainy Brain series, animated puppet shows and math comics. I could hardly keep pace with all the innovative ideas Bob shared. It was an exciting time.

Over the next couple of months, Bob's pain grew increasingly difficult to manage. Eventually, he had to stop working altogether. This realization was hard on Bob. He had such high hopes and our collaboration seemed to be the answer to so many of his concerns. The silver lining was that our friendship was able to grow in new ways. Without work to discuss, our conversations turned to music and movies, art, books, Golden Retrievers, philosophy and religion. We became good friends.

For the past two days, I've done nothing but grieve the loss of my friend. I've felt an incredible emptiness. I've been hard on myself for not doing more for him. But now it's time to be grateful. I thank God that his suffering has ended. I'm happy that Bob is finally at peace. I'm grateful I was there for him during the most difficult and painful year of his life. Bob, in turn, has left an indelible mark on me. I'm a far better person for having known such a sweet and gentle soul. 

And Bob has left an indelible mark on the world. Thanks to caring friends like Wes Fryer, we will forever enjoy Bob's podcasts, writings and creativity. His music, art, and photography will likewise be preserved. As a result, Bob will continue to inspire educators for years to come and countless students will benefit.

Rest in peace, my friend.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Math Playground and

Since 2009, Math Playground has helped more than 22,000 students get the supplies they need through Our goal is to triple that number by the end of 2013.

During the month of December, Math Playground will contribute $1 to every time our Facebook page gets a new like. We are set to donate a maximum of $12,000 to classroom projects around the country. But we need your help!

All you have to do is like our Facebook page. That's it. In return, you'll help K-12 students gain access to everything from whiteboards and calculators to math games and iPads. A few times each month you'll get an update from Math Playground in your news feed. We usually post math games, lesson ideas, and problem solving activities.

Like our Facebook page and we'll donate $1 to!

If you have a project that needs funding, let us know on our Facebook page. We'd be happy to contribute to its success.

Thanks for your help!

Monday, January 14, 2013

Thinking Blocks and the Common Core

Thinking Blocks is an online problem solving tool that enables students to build physical models of math word problems. Using brightly colored blocks, students represent mathematical relationships and identify known and unknown quantities. The model provides students with a powerful image that organizes information and simplifies the problem solving process. By modeling increasingly complex word problems, students develop strong reasoning skills which will facilitate the transition from arithmetic to algebra.

Thinking Blocks programs include word problems involving addition and subtraction, multiplication and division, fractions, and ratio and proportion. Within each of the four main modules, there are both simple and multi-step word problems for students to solve. These problem sets refer to generalized visual models that can be applied to a variety of scenarios. While results are not stored from session to session, each student's progress can be monitored during a single practice period.

Thinking Blocks supports many of the common core state standards for mathematics, particularly those found in grades 1 through 6. The standards described below come directly from the Common Core website.

Grade 1  Thinking Blocks Addition and Subtraction Module
1.0A.1: Use addition and subtraction within 20 to solve word problems involving situations of adding to, taking from, putting together, taking apart, and comparing, with unknowns in all positions, e.g., by using objects, drawings, and equations with a symbol for the unknown number to represent the problem.

1.0A.2: Solve word problems that call for addition of three whole numbers whose sum is less than or equal to 20, e.g., by using objects, drawings, and equations with a symbol for the unknown number to represent the problem.

Grade Thinking Blocks Addition and Subtraction Module
2.0A.1: Use addition and subtraction within 100 to solve one- and two-step word problems involving situations of adding to, taking from, putting together, taking apart, and comparing, with unknowns in all positions, e.g., by using drawings and equations with a symbol for the unknown number to represent the problem.

Grade 3  Thinking Blocks Multiplication and Division Module
3.0A.1: Use multiplication and division within 100 to solve word problems in situations involving equal groups, arrays, and measurement quantities, e.g., by using drawings and equations with a symbol for the unknown number to represent the problem.

3.0A.8: Solve two-step word problems using the four operations. Represent these problems using equations with a letter standing for the unknown quantity. Assess the reasonableness of answers using mental computation and estimation strategies including rounding.

Grade Thinking Blocks Multiplication/Division and Fraction Modules
4.0A.3: Solve multi-step word problems posed with whole numbers and having whole-number answers using the four operations, including problems in which remainders must be interpreted. Represent these problems using equations with a letter standing for the unknown quantity. Assess the reasonableness of answers using mental computation and estimation strategies including rounding.

4.NF.3: Solve word problems involving addition and subtraction of fractions referring to the same whole and having like denominators, e.g., by using visual fraction models and equations to represent the problem.

4.NF.4: Solve word problems involving multiplication of a fraction by a whole number, e.g., by using visual fraction models and equations to represent the problem.

Grade 5  Thinking Blocks Fraction Module
5.NF.2: Solve word problems involving addition and subtraction of fractions referring to the same whole, including cases of unlike denominators, e.g., by using visual fraction models or equations to represent the problem. Use benchmark fractions and number sense of fractions to estimate mentally and assess the reasonableness of answers. For example, recognize an incorrect result 2/5 + 1/2 = 3/7, by observing that 3/7 < 1/2.

5.NF.7: Solve real world problems involving division of unit fractions by non-zero whole numbers and division of whole numbers by unit fractions, e.g., by using visual fraction models and equations to represent the problem. For example, how much chocolate will each person get if 3 people share 1/2 lb of chocolate equally? How many 1/3-cup servings are in 2 cups of raisins?

Grade 6  Thinking Blocks Ratio and Proportion Module
6.RP.1: Understand the concept of a ratio and use ratio language to describe a ratio relationship between two quantities. For example, “The ratio of wings to beaks in the bird house at the zoo was 2:1, because for every 2 wings there was 1 beak.” “For every vote candidate A received, candidate C received nearly three votes.” 

6.RP.2: Understand the concept of a unit rate a/b associated with a ratio a:b with b ≠ 0, and use rate language in the context of a ratio relationship. For example, “This recipe has a ratio of 3 cups of flour to 4 cups of sugar, so there is 3/4 cup of flour for each cup of sugar.” “We paid $75 for 15 hamburgers, which is a rate of $5 per hamburger.”

Friday, November 16, 2012

Stay Sharp Math Arcade

For the past ten years, our math learning center has offered a program called Stay Sharp! to help students maintain fluency with basic math facts during the summer months. We convert one of our larger classrooms into a math arcade and provide a variety of learning games and challenges. Students may opt to work in teams or attempt the challenges on their own. This is a favorite among children who attend the math center and they feel quite proud when they return to school with instant recall of all their math facts.

Many of the activities on Math Playground mirror the approaches and teaching philosophy we support at the learning center. Math Playground partnered with a developer of educational games to bring the excitement and benefit of our Stay Sharp! summer program to students who visit the website year round. The Stay Sharp Math Arcade contains practice games that help students with both basic and advanced math skills. Students may compete against other players or they may choose to play against the computer. The games address very specific math concepts and provide engaging learning environments that children enjoy. We currently offer games that reinforce math concepts related to addition, subtraction, time, money, multiplication, division, fractions, ratios, proportions, decimals, integers, and pre-algebra.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Geometry and More with Geoboards

The geoboard just might be my all-time favorite math manipulative. There are so many interesting questions that can be explored with this easy to use math tool. When I first introduce students to their geoboards, I encourage open-ended exploration. At this phase, students usually create various shapes without consideration of each shape's properties. Once they're comfortable with this, I then engage my students with specific questions:

- Can you make a rectangle whose perimeter is 10?
- How many shapes can you make whose area is 12?
- Can you make a shape whose perimeter is larger than its area?
- How about a shape whose area is larger than its perimeter?

After my students understand the difference between perimeter and area, I then focus on patterns and relationships and provide even greater challenges:

 - Build a rectangle and a square with equal areas. What do you notice about the perimeters? Is this always true? Can you find a counterexample?
- How can you find the area of a right triangle? What about other types of triangles?

Geoboards can be used throughout our students' study of math. Preschoolers can simply design various shapes while  middle school students can explore advanced topics like Pick's Theorem . In addition to geometry, the geoboard can also serve as a tool for exploring fractions and algebraic thinking. 

Are geoboards part of your math program? How do use this manipulative to promote mathematical reasoning in your students?

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Versatile Pattern Blocks

Pattern blocks have many uses and ours are as quiet as a mouse! Use them to explore transformations, discover symmetry, compose and decompose shapes, investigate fractions, introduce algebraic thinking, create patterns, and engage students in authentic problem solving. These colorful shapes can provide learning opportunities for students throughout elementary and middle school.

One of my favorite ways to use pattern blocks is to enhance my students' conceptual understanding of fractions. The various shapes enable my students to move beyond traditional models for fractions, pizza pie circles and candy bar rectangles, to more elaborate structures. This leads to greater flexibility in my students' ability to visualize fractions which improves their problem solving skills. We begin by defining a particular combination of shapes as one whole. From there, we challenge students to build various fractions of the whole such as 1/3 or 1/4. When they are comfortable and familiar with these tasks, we proceed to the next level. What does it mean to build a shape that is 4/3 or 5/4 the size of the original whole? How about 5/3 or 7/4? Ultimately, we explore fraction algorithms visually. What does 4 ÷ 3/4 look like with pattern blocks? What does such an expression mean? When might we need to divide by fractional numbers in the real world? Modeling algorithms in this way creates a deeper understanding of division with non-whole numbers. 

Do you use pattern blocks with your students? Please share your favorite activity in the comments.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Escape from Fraction Manor

Would your students be able to create and order fractions if doing so meant they could help Cleo the Cat escape from the spooky and dangerous Fraction Manor?

In this fun problem solving game, students collect cards as they journey through three levels of Dr. Fractionstein's castle. Watch out for the monsters! They will try to prevent students from finding all of the cards. When each level is completed they are presented with a series of math puzzles. The cards that the students have collected contain digits that must be arranged into a series of fractions in a given order. The puzzles increase in difficulty at each level.

Escape from Fraction Manor addresses both the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics and the Principles and Standards for School Mathematics.

Common Core State Standards for Mathematics 

4.NF.2: Compare two fractions with different numerators and different denominators, e.g., by creating common denominators or numerators, or by comparing to a benchmark fraction such as 1/2. Recognize that comparisons are valid only when the two fractions refer to the same whole. Record the results of comparisons with symbols >, =, or <, and justify the conclusions, e.g., by using a visual fraction model.
Principles and Standards for School Mathematics 
Math - grades Grades 3-5: recognize and generate equivalent forms of commonly used fractions, decimals, and percents 
Math - grades Grades 6-8: compare and order fractions, decimals and percents efficiently and find their approximate locations on a number line