Fighting Words and Magic Numbers

Fighting Words is great, but can something similar be done for maths?

Fighting Words is a wonderful initiative to get children writing. It’s situated close to Dublin’s north inner city and the core staff, assisted by a band of volunteers, help students of all ages “develop their writing skills and .. explore their love of writing.” Inspired by 826 Valencia in San Francisco, Fighting Words offers fieldtrips, workshops and seminars all based around writing.

For children the basic formula is simple and they love it. Class groups visit the bright, airy, writing studio during school time and the children collaborate on writing the beginning of a story before completing it individually. A volunteer artist illustrates the story and each child leaves with a copy of the printed story. Variations on this theme have been introduced for older learners and for younger learners during holiday time. So successful is the venture that sessions are booked out months in advance.

How great it is to see children enjoying writing and being supported to write in a bright, book-filled environment. But could the idea be applied to maths? What could children do at such a centre that would be collaborative, and help them explore and enjoy maths and finish up with something satisfying to take home?

Imagine an initiative where children could enter a space where they are presented with an age-appropriate maths problem that could be discussed and approached in different ways by different children, a problem that would challenge learners who find maths easy as well as those who find maths difficult. Problems could be chosen so that they can be tackled at a level that is within or just slightly beyond each child’s mathematical capability.

The initiative could be called “Magic Numbers,” but of course the problems wouldn’t have to be limited to number problems; geometry, algebra, measures and data problems would work too. The problems would be open-ended, with several possible answers, like the following:

  • Write down all the different ways you can of making the number 7 (e.g. 3 + 4, 9 – 2 etc.). How many ways are there? or
  • The area of a field is 48 square metres. What could its perimeter be? Explain how you know your solution is correct. Are there other solutions?
  • Make and record as many different triangles as you can on a geoboard or
  • I have 1c, 5c and 10c coins in my pocket. If I take four coins from my pocket, how much money might I have? or
  • You are planning a picnic for you and four friends. Use a price list from “Superbargains” to plan how would you spend €10 to buy food for the picnic?

Over time the initiative could broaden out to include maths games, maths clinics and maths clubs. The initiative would complement children’s maths learning in school because at the centre the children would feel no pressure to complete a page in a book, they can work on problems individually or in pairs, and there would be someone on hand to offer encouragement if they’re stuck. Over time a bank of suitable problems could be developed to suit learners of all ages and maths achievement levels. Learners could attend during school hours with their class, after school, or during holiday time. Learners would leave with the satisfaction of having solved a maths problem; and solving problems and discussing solutions is a good way to learn more maths.

For such an initiative to happen, what would be needed is an attractive, insured venue with light, heat and suitable maths equipment, a fulltime manager/education officer (who could source and lead the development of new problems and maths games), and a gang of willing volunteers interested in maths, who are prepared to learn how to stand back and encourage and motivate learners to apply what maths they know and to learn new maths. Not easy, but it could be done.

Listen to an interview with a staff member of Fighting Words here.

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2 Responses to Fighting Words and Magic Numbers

  1. Muirne Lawlor

    Could this be the seed of an idea for math summer camps funded by DES, similar to those in literacy and gaeilge for DEIS schools? Submit a proposal and see what happens

  2. Seán Delaney

    Muirne, that sounds like a very good idea. However, I am not aware of the scheme you mentioned. Is it the “Exploring literacy through the arts” programme as mentioned here. It would be great to make an application under such a scheme. It could be beneficial for the children who take part in it and for the teachers or student teachers who work in it.

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