Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Summer in New Jersey, or What in the World is Sitzfleisch?

It's summer here in the Garden State.  That means:

These are amazing.  No tomato in the world comes close.
White, yellow, bi-color,,,it's all so good.

And of course:

Healthy doses of "the Boss".

     Summer also means it's time for two weeks of PD with over 60 math teachers from all over central New Jersey at the Mid-New Jersey Math-Science Partnership (MSP) on the campus of Middlesex County College. I've taken advantage of this PD opportunity 2 out of the past 3 years, and its quality has been uneven.  But judging from our first few sessions, I think that this year's session will be different.
   One of our first assignments was to take a look at several recent articles and compose some reflections and thoughts.  Elizabeth Green's piece in the New York Times Magazine section has gotten lots of attention. In fact  Dan assigned this for summer reading last week.  We were also given copies of Jordan Ellenberg's Times op-ed, "Don't Teach Math, Coach It".  Ellenberg advocates using games, both classic (chess, board games, cards) and new (an app called DragonBox) to teach kids sitzfleisch, which in its traditional sense means the ability to sit still and concentrate for an extended period of time, but which Ellenberg defines as, "the ability to focus on a complicated skill for the length of time it takes to master it."  Because games can be addictive, Ellenberg believes they can play an important role in building sitzfleisch, which in turn can promote attentiveness, doggedness, and perseverance, all good qualities any learner should develop.  Perseverance even pops up in the Common Core's first standard for mathematical practice, "Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them."
     I've blogged about games before.  From Ultimate-Tic-Tac-Toe, to an in-depth exploration of Factor Captor, to having the kids create their own games.  But I've always thought of them as skill reviewers or problem-solving experiences, not as sitzfleisch builders.  Here's one that Ellenberg recommends:

This game is called Rush Hour.  The object is to move the cars around so that the red car can exit the parking lot.  Ellenberg claims that this game is about search algorithms; I've used this quite a bit this year, especially with one or two especially impulsive third graders.

      I don't know anything about search algorithms, but it was gratifying to see the kids grow in their ability to stick it out until they find a way to solve the puzzle.  Often the solution requires them to take two steps forward and one step back before they can move forward again, itself an important problem solving skill.
    Here's another favorite:

Mancala is a go-to game.  Easy to learn, and it doesn't take very long to complete.  But you need to be able to think ahead and play out moves in advance in order to be successful.  And the colored stones are cool.

     Again, I have seen impulsive kids, who start by randomly choosing a cup and dropping stones, learn how to think before they act.  This a behavior that can be transferred back to the classroom and used in a traditional learning and practice environment.
     Here at MSP Dr. Milou has encouraged us to explore on-line game sites that promote computational fluency, like and  They build sitzfleisch too.
    So fire up the BBQ, put up the corn, cut up a big Jersey beefsteak tomato, put on some Bruce, and go forth and play a game!

Summer's here and the time is right...