SPARTA — Kim Lovely stood at the front of her classroom and told her students to start swimming.
The students complied, circling clusters of desks in zig zags and figure eight’s, extending their arms forward and out in a pretend breaststroke motions.
“Uh-oh, a hurricane has struck,” Lovely announced. “Everyone get in a raft! Each raft holds five people.”
With the earnest excitement of musical chairs, the students began pulling each other into huddles of five. Soon, there were four groups—or rafts—with five students each. Two students wound up as shark bait, meaning they were stranded without a raft.
“It’s okay,” Lovely told them. “When I played this game, I ended up as shark bait every single time.”
Lovely then asked the class if a set of different-sized rafts could still accommodate all twenty survivors. One boy suggested rafts carrying ten people each, and so launched another round of the game to put his theory to the test.
As they divvied up their friends into make-believe life boats, the students at Highland Elementary’s summer math camp were setting a foundation for understanding basic multiplication tables — whether they realized it or not. By playing the shark bait game, they discovered that two groups of 10 will yield the same results as four groups of five.
The game is part of a new approach to math education promoted through the Math Literacy Initiative. Teachers introduce new concepts by creating experiences that allow students to experiment and explore.
“The shared experience allowed kids to dive in, collaborate with each other and problem-solve,” said Shawn Winkelhoos, principal at Highland Elementary.
The Math Literacy Initiative was developed at the Ohio State University’s Mansfield campus and is currently being piloted at Highland and in a range of school districts across Richland County. The goal of the initiative is to empower teachers with a new way of teaching math — one that focuses less on rote memorization and more on understanding why math works the way it does.
“Kids have been taught to memorize and when it comes to application there’s a disconnect. That’s what we’re trying to get away from at an early age,” said Dan Freund, who serves as superintendent of Highland Local Schools and a leadership consultant for the initiative.
Teri Bucci, co-director of the Math Literacy Initiative, stated that math needs to be taught differently because society is different. Thriving in a post-industrial economy, she argues, requires a critical thinking approach.
“Instead of just being able to follow the directions, which is kind of how we’ve taught math before, we need students to be able to really play with, engage with and create with mathematics,” said Bucci, an associate professor of math education at Ohio State’s Mansfield campus. “We need people who can write the programs for that automation. We need people who can come up with creative uses of mathematics to solve some of the problems in our society…We don’t need people who can just replicate. We need people who can create.”
Teachers who have adopted the method say that students at all levels are more engaged in the activity-based lessons.
“This math literacy initiative has totally changed the structure of my classroom,” said Jessica Litzenberg, a fourth grade math teacher. “I used to teach in kind of a lecture-based set up and now I see myself as a facilitator and let the students drive where we go.”
“If a child already thinks they’re bad at math…they don’t see this as math. They see this as fun and as an opportunity to succeed,” said Amy Randolph, the district’s special education coordinator. “The kids that are maybe low achievers or may be shy or generally just don’t talk in class, they all talk, they all participate.”
While activity-based learning still has to be paired with more traditional, step-by-step instruction, incorporating games, drawings and discussions offer students a real-world example that they can refer back to later.
“These lessons aren’t intended to be used every day. These lessons are to be used as a jump-start for new concepts,” Randolph explained.
The process can be beneficial for teachers too.
“When you give a paper assessment, you don’t get to see their thinking,” Randolph added. “This allows for you to see the way their brains work, the way they think.”