black chess pieces on chess board

Journeys in Film: Queen of Katwe

I have been eyeing the Journeys in Film website as a potential blog post for a couple of months. You can join the site for free, and it has an extensive library of curriculum to accompany different movies. The only downside, of course, is that you need to be able to somehow access the movies — something that can be quite cumbersome in schools. Though Journeys in Film does not solve that problem, the site does have a nice link for each film that offers suggestions for all of the ways to stream or purchase each film.

The latest resource I’ve noticed from Journeys in Film is for a Disney film called Queen of Katwe. This movie is based on a true story about a Ugandan girl who meets a mentor who teaches her how to play chess. I thought it was a fitting resource to share today, when we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. with a Day of Service, as the discussion guide highlights the incredible value of mentors in the lives of young people. I have personally seen students’ lives changed by mentors and Queen of Katwe is a shining example of the difference mentors can make.

The curriculum/discussion guides on this site are extremely thorough and of high quality. Though I think full-length movies should rarely be shown during a school day (try Class Hook for short clips that support your curriculum), there are definitely exceptions to this rule. If you want to inspire your students, apply some of the lessons of chess to everyday life, or motivate a new generation of mentors, Queen of Katwe may be worth a couple of hours of class or after-school time.

black girl playing chess at table in room
Photo by Monstera on

Stories That Need to Be Told

On Monday, January 17th, 2022, we will honor the life of Martin Luther King Jr. in the United States. I say, “we,” though I know that not everyone, even today, appreciates this man’s contributions to the advancement of civil rights for all. And there is a disturbing amount of people in our country who would rather not acknowledge our past. Some will ignore the date, some will protest against it, and some will argue that commemorating Martin Luther King Jr. somehow harms the children of this generation.

My anti-racist link for this week is to a Storycorps video about one of the men who motivated Martin Luther King Jr. to become an activist, Maceo Snipes. Snipes was an army veteran who returned from fighting for our country in World War II, voted the next day, and was murdered for exercising his right — one of the many rights he defended valiantly as a soldier.

This egregious crime prompted a young college student, Martin Luther King Jr., to write a letter that was published in the Atlanta-Journal Constitution. In that letter, King refers to the “scarecrow” arguments racists utilize to defend their terrible acts, attempting to justify themselves by claiming they were only protecting White people from Black people who want to take over. Sound familiar?

We often recall Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech this time of year, but I think we need to make sure we don’t forget why that speech needed to be made. It’s not pleasant to think about the horrific sins of our past, but we are in grave danger of returning to them if we choose to ignore them.

For more resources for teaching about Martin Luther King, Jr., you can go here. I will also be adding a link to this post to my collection of Anti-Racist Resources.

light landscape people art
Photo by Wilson Rodriguez on

Make and Solve Balance Puzzles with Mathigon’s PolyPad

Mathigon is one of the many free resources I’ve included in my Wakelet, “Math Sites That Won’t Make You Fall Asleep.” It is rich with incredible interactive lessons that are visually appealing as well. Some examples I’ve mentioned in the past are the “puzzle a day” every December, its “Almanac of Interesting Numbers,” mathematical origami, the “Panorama” tool for seeing mathematical applications in careers, and “Alice in Fractal Land,” which you can find on the Activities page. (The Patterns and Sequences lesson is a good tie-in to the 12 Days of Christmas lesson I posted last week.)

One of the many tools I haven’t mentioned that you can find on the Mathigon site is “Polypad.” I was reminded of this when I saw a Tweet from @DavidPoras that showcased a fun way to customize some puzzles using the Algebra balance scale. In a way it reminds me of “Solve Me Mobiles” and the Balance Benders books we used to use in my elementary classroom or those Facebook math riddles that get passed around from time to time. With his permission, here is a screenshot of David’s Tweet:

See this idea from @DavidPoras on Twitter here.

In case you don’t have Twitter, here is the link to David’s puzzle. If you want to make your own, he also gave this link for the tutorial. (One thing to note that I didn’t see in the tutorial is that you can use the image icon in the menu at the bottom of the screen to upload your own images.) You can find more tutorials here. The Question Builder and Link Sharing videos will be helpful if you are making this type of activity. Creating your own puzzles does require free registration, and you will want to go into your Dashboard in your account and make sure you are registered as a Teacher in order to see the Question Builder tool.

If you happen to make more of these, please share on the comments. I will be adding this to my Math Wakelet, as well as my December/Winter one (under Stem). I might have a bit of time to create a few more puzzles, as I know teachers are short on time, and will share them here and on the December Wakelet if I do.

Thanks to David for the inspiration and to Mathigon for providing such an incredibly engaging site!

laboratory test tubes

What is Medical Racism, and How Can We Educate Our students About It?

I was listening to a show on NPR the other day that made my mouth drop. The program claimed that many Black Americans are automatically placed lower on kidney transplant waiting lists due to their race. Today. In the year 2021. It turns out that there is a formula used to calculate how well your kidney is functioning, and this GFR tool includes an adjustment for Black people based on an assumption made years ago that their genetic makeup enabled their kidneys to filter better than White people who had the same filtration rate. You can read more about this, and the faulty reasoning that that led to this biased math here. It seems that a task force has recently mandated that this variable should be removed from the calculation, and it has already been removed from some health care systembs, but how many people have died waiting for a transplant as a result of this widely applied algorithm?

I had, of course, heard about racism in healthcare before. For example, there are reports that Black patients are prescribed pain medication at much lower rates than White ones because of the stereotype that they are “faking it so they can get drugs.” And this is not isolated to Black Americans; other people of color are also victims of biased treatment. I think what surprised me about the kidney story was that there was an actual formula, embedded deeply in the medical field, overtly designed to ignore other symptoms in favor of a person’s race.

In other words, systemic racism.

There are movements to address these problems in medicine such as changes in medical school curriculums. But I wanted to find out if there are things we can do before students attend post-graduate school, as not all children will become doctors. Some of them may end up in fields like pharmaceutical research, marketing, or policy making that could also impact health care.

Parents Magazine has a good article by Danielle Broadway, “How to Teach the History of Racism in Science Class,” that gives some solid recommendations for teachers. Beginning with the “Teaching Hard History Framework” from Learning for Justice for K-5 to examining the cases of Henrietta Lacks and the Tuskegee Syphilis Study in high school, students can learn lessons from past mistakes and analyze current ones. Another resource I would add is this TED Talk from Dorothy Roberts.

As with my other Anti-Racist posts, I will add this to my Wakelet. I hope that it is a helpful resource for teachers who want to make the world more just.

photo of woman looking through camera
Photo by Artem Podrez on

Math Fun with The 12 Days of Christmas 2021 Style

Interesting math patterns make me happy, so I really enjoyed doing a unit on math masterpieces with my 4th graders several years ago that included Fibonacci, Sierpinski, Pascal, and the 12 Days of Christmas. Unfortunately, several of the links that I included in that post back in 2016 no longer exist. But the good news is that some newer ones have surfaced. Time, then, to go back to the drawing board…

If I was doing this lesson today, I would begin by posing the question of how we could figure out exactly how many presents the extremely generous “true love” would have purchased by the end of the famous “12 Days of Christmas” song. After some discussion, suggestions, and student collaboration (and maybe listening to this funny version from Straight No Chaser), I would then introduce this great spreadsheet Eric Curts just posted. It will help students think about their math and learn a few spreadsheet skills. After students complete this and you debrief, you could then ask them what they think the price of all of those gifts would add up to today. PNC has a nice summary of the cost of each gift and the total, but don’t show it to them until you’ve gotten some estimates! Students who need a challenge could be tasked with designing a new spreadsheet for those calculations.

Next class, I would introduce them to Pascal’s triangle. I wouldn’t tell them what it is at first. I would give them this worksheet, this one, or the first page of this one to complete. You can see on the latter link that there are some additional pages that give suggestions for patterns students can look for in the triangle once they have successfully added the correct numbers. Even more patterns can be found here. Note the Fibonnacci numbers, and how you can get Sierpinski’s triangle by coloring in certain numbers! And then, you can point out the pattern, shown here, that reveals how many total presents are received each day. (The printable triangles I linked to don’t have that many rows, so it’s up to you if you want them to make that connection on their own.)

For more advanced students, you can show them this video, which demonstrates how Pascal’s Triangle can be used to find coefficients or probability. Here is an interactive from Mathigon for those students who want to go deeper, too. Shodor also has an online triangle you can manipulate and color as well as recommended lessons. This Geogebra one is fun to play with, too.

If you’re loving these math resources, don’t forget that you can go to my Wakelet page, where I have links to two different math collections full of engaging activities, “Math, Art, and Nature” and “Math Sites that Won’t Make You Fall Asleep.” You’ll also find my December collection and Fun Stuff!

Gifts for the Gifted – Brain Connect

Several years ago, I thought I would help out the parents of my gifted and talented students by writing about some games, toys, or books that I thought might make good purchases during the holiday season.  I called the series of posts, “Gifts for the Gifted,” and I have continued to do it annually (except for 2019) on every November and December.  These gifts are suggestions for any child – not just those who qualify for a GT program. Sometimes I receive a free product for review, but I am not paid for these posts, and I never recommend a product that I wouldn’t buy for my own child.  For past “Gifts for the Gifted” posts, including my 2021 list, you can visit this page. I also have a Pinterest Board of Games and Toys for Gifted Students. 

Remember those plastic sliding puzzles you would get as party favors or in cereal boxes or for wedding gifts back in the old days?

Just me?

Okay. They looked like this.

Adobe Stock Image

And you had to slide the tiles to get the numbers in order. Or maybe they had a picture that was all mixed up and you were supposed put the picture back together by, again, sliding the tiles.

Or, you could just pop out the tiles like I did and press them back in…

Just me again?

I think I’ve made it pretty clear on this blog that spatial activities never came very easily to me, so it’s probably not a surprise that I didn’t really like those puzzles. But I’m all for cultivating a growth mindset and challenging myself now that I’m older. So, I went ahead and ordered Brain Connect even though it wasn’t in my preferred game category (word games). I thought, and I was right, that it would tick some of the boxes on my Gifts for the Gifted criteria list.

First of all, Brain Connect is definitely not your mother’s or grandmother’s sliding puzzle. There are four puzzle boards included in the game, and each one has small tabs beside each row and column. The tabs are kind of like off and on switches. You keep them so that the red color shows except for the places where your path should join. Those you make green. So, you’re basically trying to connect the green squares by sliding the tiles in the middle to make a continuous path.

There are two recommended play variations in the set. The first one is to exchange a board with another person, have them randomly switch two tabs to green, give it back to the original player, and race to see who finishes first. The second is to use the cards in the box by flipping one over and having all players slide the same two tabs over so that they are racing to complete the same challenge. Of course, it won’t be exactly the same since their tiles will probably have begun in different places and there are potentially several answers for some of the challenges. You earn cards based on the place you achieve (1st, 2nd, or 3rd) each time. To win a multi-player game, collect 10 cards first.

You could also play the game solo if you happen to like that kind of entertainment.

Brain Connect is a good game to put in a classroom center, or to give your kids in the back seat of the car. Parents can play against children fairly, and you can give harder cards (the ones with wheels on them) to make it a bit more difficult for spatially gifted players. Durability-wise, it’s fairly easy to carry 4 boards around (maybe not the cards) without losing them. It would be nice if there was a bag, though, since the box takes up more space. The boards seem pretty impervious to normal mistreatment, like dropping them accidentally. But I wouldn’t rule out young hooligans like me who are tempted to pull the tiles out instead of sliding them.

Brain Connect is made by Blue Orange Games. As I am trying to support independent toy stores this year, here is a link so you can purchase Brain Connect from Kidding Around in NYC. However, you have some other options with Blue Orange. Go to their Shop page, and you can try to locate a store near you, or buy the game through their Shopatron page and “your order is automatically offered to local stores in your area that participate in the program.”