Kinesthetic Math

Moving into academic and social growth

For Middle Level


The writer is part of a team that started Project Excel, a brand new year-long special-education program at Sandwich High School in Sandwich, Massachusetts. Project Excel is tailored for students who suffer from social anxiety or other behavioral issues that make it difficult for them to learn with others. Because of the students' special needs, Project Excel's class sizes are small, but the math strategies explained here are useable in any educational setting.

I teach math at Project Excel. At the start of the year, we had no data about each student's past level of achievement; we had no set math curriculum. I knew we'd be developing Individualized Learning Plans for each student and would regularly assess progress, but none of this was in place when the school year started.

Small but challenging
Our program is tiny: we started with five students ranging in age from 14 to 17. None had had much success in a traditional school setting, but a ll hoped to complete their high school diplomas. Two were motivated to graduate and move on, which tended to keep their challenging behaviors at bay. The other three had special needs and were extremely difficult to manage. Labels abounded among them: ODD, Asperger's, ADHD, Bipolar Disorder, and MMH topped the list. They began the year constantly interrupting each other, rolling eyes, and smirking. Most problematically, each of the three came in with negative self-views. They saw their futures as bleak, if not hopeless. Consequently, getting them focused on traditional math was challenging.

In my work with the Developmental Designs approach, I learned that the most important adolescent needs are competence, relationship, autonomy, and fun. When problems arise-when the learning process is disrupted or cannot even get started-we can troubleshoot by thinking about which of these needs are not being met and coming up with pro-social ways to positively meet them. I kept this idea in the back of my mind as the year began, but I wasn't clear how to use it effectively.

What do they need?
Two things serendipitously helped me chart a path toward success during the height of my "fall of frustration." First, one of our parents baked us a cake. Our English teacher was eager to turn the cake into a math lesson on area and perimeter. Part of me thought her idea was corny or cliché. But as I looked at that cake, something dawned on me: math really is all around us.

K-Math is born
The next day, failing to get anything going academically, I prepared to head outside with the students for a few minutes to kick a soccer ball around and regroup. We hadn't taken an outdoor break in the middle of a lesson before, and I noticed the students were really excited to do this. A new vibe came over everyone. Especially excited were the students who usually were moving around in class when they needed to be focused and sit still. Kinesthetic Math, or K-Math, was about to be born! We went outside, spread out, and began kicking the ball around. As we did, we guessed how far each pass would have to travel to make it from the kicker to the receiver. Math was all around us. Our first, improvised K-Math session was done!

When we returned to class after our soccer break, students sat down and a near-miracle happened. They appeared ready to focus! They watched me as I wrote on the white board. They broke out of their old patterns: S didn't start doodling, D didn't grab a worry stone, and even K, our biggest math-hater, was paying attention and got right to work. After my lesson, they worked quietly for 14 minutes. Fourteen minutes! It was the most beautiful 14 minutes of my young teaching career.

Fleshing it out
We did K-Math for a short block of time each period thereafter. We started at about 10:15 every day, when students needed a break from sitting quietly. I kept the time frame a little flexible; I didn't stop the flow at exactly that time if the learning was going well. We used different areas and objects around our campus-math is all around us!-and incorporated them into our physical games. K-Math became a routine the students could rely on as I worked to develop course materials. Here are several examples of K-Math activities:

  • Measure the perimeter and area of the basketball court.
  • Measure the circumference of the imaginary circle drawn by a tether ball at the tetherball court.
  • Record shot statistics for floor hockey, Frisbee golf, ping-pong rallies, and basketball, and then draw graphs to represent the data.
  • Enter shot statistics into Excel spreadsheet and create graphs
  • Calculate Wiffle Ball batting averages.
  • Create a circle with a 10-foot-long rope and discuss the circumference, diameter, and radius, and the relationships among these.
  • Make snowballs and measure the volume and density of the snowballs. Melt them overnight and then measure the volume and density of the resultant water the next day.
  • Predict the probability of pulling a blue-colored poker chip out of a mixed bag of blue, white, and red chips. Analyze the results.

These provided abundant possibilities for future lessons. The rope could be changed to any shape; there’s no end to the “collect sports statistics” idea. And there’s no reason why some of these lessons couldn’t be repeated. I think the K-Math approach would work well in larger-sized classes, too. In fact, the statistical sampling for shots made or ice cream preferences or whatever would increase the validity of the math, because the sample size would be larger.

Let’s move!
The students had a voice in deciding what the physical component of each K-Math activity would be. At first, I tried to persuade them to do math projects that were less kinesthetic and more sedentary, like creating a board game from our statistics, or creating surveys and using the answers to these to create a Family Feud game. Every time I tried to lead them in these directions, they balked, opting instead for more athletic pursuits. They did, however, welcome my suggestions for ways of working math into the physical activities they wanted to do.

It’s what they need
The key to K-Math’s success: it keeps students engaged in learning because it meets students’ needs for fun, competence, relationship, and autonomy, and the information learned is relevant.
The need for fun is powerful. We talked about how each K-Math activity should meet the “fun standard.” We quantified the success of each K-Math lesson by keeping track of student-generated “fun” ratings after each activity. After measuring some Frisbee golf shots, for example, we came up with an average “fun” rating between 1-5, and logged that score into our “K-Math activity fun quotient” sheet. The more fun a K-Math activity, the more engaged the students were. And as the fun kept happening, I could see relationships improve. The need for relationship was being positively met during K-Math, and this was spilling over into the regular math time.

Once I let students have input into the decision-making, I realized I hadn’t been meeting their need for autonomy. Looking back, I wondered at the start of the year whether this group really wanted and needed autonomy, considering how they were so used to sitting back and passively letting their teachers do all the work while they resisted. The autonomy they embraced during K-Math showed that they certainly do. I now see that meeting needs is essential to all students’ learning, regardless of how challenging each student’s situation may be.

Academic and social growth
Was K-Math helping? One day in mid-November, I assigned six problems for homework from a page of 20 problems. The student with Asperger’s syndrome handed the assignment in the next day with all 20 problems completed! He pointedly looked away from me and said in his strained cadence through clenched teeth that he was anxious and wanted to get through math and pass the MCAS test. I looked at him and told him I would do my best to help him. Later, during wrap-up time, we did our tradition of giving acknowledgments. We delivered each acknowledgment verbally and with a small piece of chocolate. This student handed me a piece of chocolate, flashed me a grin, and said I was a good math teacher. It was clear that day that both his motivation and our relationship had improved.

Wicked fun
Since we started K-Math, other math is being done by all my students with a much more positive attitude and better effort. I also noted that although I have pretty regular attendance and homework compliance, there was a slight bump up in both after students had had an especially good time in math. I believe that through daily kinesthetic explorations I was also better able to build relationships with the students while at the same time modeling how much I love math. Math is fun for all now. K-Math is wicked fun.

Susanne Holland is a math and science teacher in the Project Excel program of the Sandwich Public School System in Sandwich, Massachusetts.

This article first appeared in Developmental Designs: A Middle-Level Newsletter, Spring 2011