Surviving the Countdown

Don’t get me wrong…I love being a teacher.  But during the third week in June an unbelievable exhaustion sets in.  At the end of the school year, teachers have report cards to complete, final grades to justify, transition notes to update, end of year celebrations to plan, materials to collect, classrooms to pack up, textbooks and final assignments to chase down…

Teachers:  Congratulations on making it this far in an incredibly challenging year.  Only one more week of classes to plan. Have you ever noticed that once you start that countdown – time stands still?

Students in middle school know what’s going on…exams or final projects are handed in.  Nothing they do now “counts towards their mark”.  The Principal comes over the PA system reminding everyone that if you have to come to school you will be engaged in meaningful activities even if they will not be graded.  Serenity now!  So what do you do?  What are those worthwhile activities that can be done with minimal prep, that maximize engagement, that are adaptable and accessible for all your learners and are possible to do if you have a whole class or just a handful of students?

Here are some of my go-to activities when I am in survival mode:

Skyscraper Puzzles:
There is something about having fun things to play with that gets students excited.  I love these puzzles because it usually highlights the strengths of a different set of students.  And if you ask me – we don’t do nearly enough spatial awareness tasks.  I can confidently say that after years of sharing this activity with my classes – kids love these puzzles.   And I mean all kids love these puzzles.  Find the directions, templates, and how-to pictures here.  I have also used the pictures from this link and put together a little slide deck to review the rules with my students as a group.  Unifix cubes work great with this task as you see in the pictures but I also saw recently on Twitter that Mrs Murray’s Class used cuisenaire rods instead – genius!  Thanks Mark Chubb! (Follow him on Twitter @MarkChubb3)

Tangram Puzzles:
Again, having materials to play with is just fun for everyone! I do this type of puzzle just before Halloween, Christmas, March Break, and June….you know those moments when you need guaranteed fun! My favourite source for puzzles is I usually make a slide deck with the puzzle in black, followed by a slide with the solution. If I notice that the measure of frustration passes from an acceptable I-can-do-it-but-not-yet engagement to an I-am-ready-to-give-up level I ask if anyone needs a “flash”.  I advance the slideshow to bring up the solution and then backspace quickly just to flash a little hint and get kids back in the game.

Mash-Up Math Puzzles
These free algebraic reasoning picture puzzles are beautiful and fun.
My students love racing to figure them out…then we slow it down to discuss how we ordered the equations to solve them and prove why and how our solution works.  Maybe it is the colorful pictures that makes them appealing – I’m not sure.  But I do know that my students are always engaged and determined when I bring these out!  I usually create a slide deck and pop each puzzle on a slide.  I display it on the whiteboard and give everyone a minute or two to work it out on their own.  Then a student comes up to share their reasoning.  If they get stuck or confused they can hand it off to a friend.  Easy to set up and minimal prep.  Find lots of great free puzzles here!

Connect Four
Want to gamify some math problems?  This format has worked well in my classes.  Draw a big grid on the whiteboard, maybe 6 by 6.  Make teams of 4 (2-3 would also be fine).  Each team has 5 or so magnets of a certain colour.  (I use business card magnets and stick colored paper to one side).  Display a math problem or puzzle on the whiteboard.  When a team gets a question correct (or maybe the first 3 teams to solve a tangram puzzle for example) they can take one of their magnets and place it in the grid.  As play continues, each time a team is first to get a question correct they can bring a magnet into play or can change the location of one of their magnets in the grid.  The first team to connect four magnets in a row wins.  Here is an example that uses a mix of mash-up math puzzles, tangram puzzles, and questions on constructing 3D objects from their views. Feel free to make a copy and edit to fit your needs.  This “connect four” idea could be used with any type of math problem.  But for me, the combo of mash-up puzzles, and tangram challenges had the widest appeal.

June Team Challenge

My Connect Four game board in action. What team will get four in a row first?

Math Art
I first discovered Annie Perkins’ Math Art Challenge during our learning from home period last year.  It was just what I needed to de-stress and relax while still working with some cool geometric ideas and patterns.  There are 100 different challenges to check out.  I gravitated to the Isometric Cube Cut-Outs, Celtic Knots, and Apollonian Gaskets  since they were kinda connected to what we were learning and seemed manageable even from a distance.  I am also excited to try the Decagon Pride Flag and so many other projects given at

Scavenger Hunts
Take the kids outside!
This year I have made a few scavenger hunts that will get kids on the move while still engaging in some worthwhile problem solving.  Students can choose from three levels of difficulty.  Just print, post, break out the clipboards and go for it!

Central Tendency


Adding & Subtracting Fractions

Area and Perimeter Basics


Math Libs
This activity uses multiple choice questions where the solutions are connected to a word or phrase.  When the activity concludes, we string the words together to form a sentence or paragraph that we read out loud to confirm our answers.  Somehow arranging typical questions in this format has kids engaged.  I don’t claim to know why or how that happens but I have seen year after year that students enjoy figuring out the sentence at the end.  I change up answers so it includes their teachers’ names, or an inside joke.  In one math libs example, I had their Star Wars obsessed teacher sharing a coffee in the Tim’s drive thru with Yoda…they loved it!  It also helps if the sentence says there are popsicles – that you actually do have popsicles!  This activity is flexible.  Post questions around your space or outside to get students up and moving.  Or give each student or team a copy to complete electronically.
Here are a few I made this year:

Grade 7 Foundational Outcomes Math Libs

Divisibility Math Libs

I’ve Got One!
Lastly I’m playing around with a new idea…I’ve Got One!  In this activity, the prompts have many possible answers.  As students make their way from station to station, they view what has been given so far and try to find an original response.  Many activities that try to gamify math emphasize speed.  This could be a way to promote creativity instead.  I’m not satisfied with the name though – please send suggestions! Here are 20 questions that I pulled together as an example, but this idea could be applied to any topic in your math program.

Wow.  This has been quite the year.  We are almost there!  Try to take a moment to reflect on the challenges you have overcome.  Then finish with a little joyful math.  I hope what I have shared will help in surviving the countdown.

Tangram Challenges…so fun!

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