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Teacher’s Corner

I have been using Math Forum Problems of the Week for a long time.  I use them because they offer challenging, interesting problems that are accessible to all learners.  I also use them because they are just fun.

One of my primary goals as I teach mathematics to my middle schoolers is to help them see how much fun math truly is.  The fun I describe to them is not the fun you might associate with the phrase you sometimes see from online vendors that claim they “Make Math Fun”.  Typically, this is some sort of game that is a reward for completing so many math drills.  That’s not the fun I mean.  The fun I mean is the fun a person gets from becoming totally immersed in an intellectual act, being challenged, rising to the challenge, sometimes succeeding, sometimes experiencing frustration, attempting to overcome frustration, overcoming frustration, talking to friends and more experienced math learners, and succeeding.  Now that’s fun!

(Please note – there are many online sites and math games that teach worthwhile mathematics.  Those are fun, too.)

I’ve used the PoWs as a challenge for individuals, with small groups in Math Club, and with whole classes.  I’ve settled into a routine over the past three years that I like very much.  I’ll be doing it again this year.

My middle school prides itself on each grade sending out a weekly newsletter.  Each teacher reports on classroom activities, homework and test schedules, field trips, assemblies, etc.  I add an extra section to my part of the newsletter.  It’s simply called “Problem of the Week,” and links to a Math Forum problem I’ve selected.

That’s where the fun starts.  Students are encouraged to work the problems on their own time.  They can work by themselves or with a friend (or several!). I encourage parents to get involved and work the problems with their child.  I tell students I will award a little bit of extra credit for their work but nobody really cares about that.  Many, many students jump in and work the problems.  There’s no pressure.

Sometimes a student will stay in at recess to work a problem with me.  What a great way to spend recess!  Our Language Arts teacher always works the PoW.  Students sometimes work them with her.  Parents, either with their child or without, work the problems.  The best exchange I had was around The Oracle’s Crowns [Problem #16999].  I received this email:

Hi Seth-

We are giving up on this problem, have you posted the answer anywhere?  Or could you explain it?  This one stumped us.


I replied:

Hi Jean.

I won’t give you a solution but I’ll give you a hint or two.

which I did.

Here’s the next email:

Mr. Leavitt,

Before the meeting in late January we briefly discussed with you the Oracle’s Crown problem.  We were doubting that Caleb could know with certainty which crown he had on.  I happened to have passed the problem along to a co-worker of mine who also found it interesting.  He in turn passed it along to his boss who is, I think one of the most intelligent people I know.  The two of them discussed it and also came to the conclusion that Caleb could not know with certainty what crown he had on.

Do you have access to the official answer or could you show us how you think Caleb could know?

I have shared some of this other extra credit problems at work too.  People love them.  They think it is great that you are challenging the kids (and their parents) with these problems.



The family — student and parents — continued working on the problem until they understood (with help) how Caleb could deduce that he had a crown made of tin.

My last email from Jerome was:

That explains it.  Thank you.

As an amusing follow-up to my note yesterday, the boss (who I said was one of the most intelligent people I know) left a voice mail message on my co-worker’s phone at 3:36 this morning.  It simply said, “Tin, tin, tin! The crown is made of tin!” He obviously must have figured it out during the night and had to let him know.

Thanks again!

What fun and what a great way to interact with students and their parents.  I love it.  And I owe all my enjoyment to the Math Forum and the great Problems of the Week.