By Phil Nast November 28, 2011 4:00 pm
My 7th grade math teacher used to say that idle minds are the devil’s playground. She must have repeated it often because I remember it. She was an old fashioned teacher from New England who amused us with arcane vocabulary: spider (skillet) and frappe (milk shake). We liked her. She liked to see the tops of our heads as we calculated discounts and interest on small sheets of yellow paper. I don’t recall a single idle moment in Miss Specht’s classroom.
As a teacher, I did my best to avoid idle moments. Planning more than could be finished in a period was one way. Requiring and making available free reading books was another. As a substitute, I’m learning other ways to fill gaps.
When I subbed the other day, one of my afternoon periods was a study hall. Those two words amuse me almost as much as Fox News. The students all had homework. A few students immediately began to solve equations or write sentences in Spanish, but clearly many would rather have done anything but school work. I understand the feeling. Dirty dishes press more when I should be doing my taxes. From habit, I reminded them that work finished in school doesn’t need to be done at home. I’m sure I sounded much like the Charlie Brown’s teacher.
The classroom had a bookcase, which I pointed out, filled with novels, but no one even scanned the titles. Fortunately, I’d packed a deck of Mensa cards that morning: Mighty Mind Benders: 75 Number Puzzles. (The publisher, Chronicle Books, offers the sets of cards on its website too. The search strings “number puzzles” or “word puzzles” will get you to your goal faster in this labyrinthine website.) An advantage to this deck and others in the series is that the puzzles are short enough to write on a blackboard and challenging enough to keep students happily busy.
Though the results of a recent study published in Nature questions the “brain boosting” effects of brain training programs, puzzles do provide opportunities for students to use math and language skills while developing problem solving approaches and social skills. All in one fun package.
Another challenging puzzle is SET. If you have a smartboard, you can project the daily online version. If you are limited to a blackboard, a set of SET cards and colored chalks will do just as well. There’s even a handheld electronic version. I’ve become faster at finding all six sets so my observational skills must be getting sharper. This could be a good partner activity with partner teams competing.
Rory’s Story Cubes is another activity that exercises imagination and writing skills. The cubes can be used individually, with teams, or the whole class. Nine cubes with 54 images provide plenty of story writing variety, and depending on time available, you can use all 9 cubes or fewer.
A number of websites offer collections of different kinds of puzzles: Cool Math 4 Kids, Logic Puzzles, and BrainBashers. Some of these activities can be downloaded and printed or projected in classrooms with smartboards.
It’s always fun to see the smiles when students solve problems.