Three years ago, Halifax School learned about the Sumdog computer program, an online interactive math game played by students in Canada, Australia, England, and the United States. Since then, the school has used the program to help keep math from being just problems in a book.
Students sign up for Sumdog through their school and create an online avatar in their likeness. As their character completes objectives in the game, such as one level where it knocks down walls to free a monkey from its cage, they collect points that they can use to dress up their avatar, or choose an animal to represent them. But this is not just some computer game; each action a player makes is preceded by a math problem, set to the individual’s grade level. These math problems become harder as the game continues, and with each correct answer, the game automatically adjusts to the skill level of the player.
For Halifax School math mentor Judy Anyan, the game is an added plus to the school’s collection of math programs. “ It’s more like a game than a punishment when they do math,” said Anyan, who also mentors teachers at the school on creating the math curriculum. “With Sumdog, they’re answering math questions, while working toward a goal. They get so involved with the game, and almost forget they’re really learning math.”
Students started using Sumdog at the same time that math circles were introduced to the classrooms. In these circles, outside-the-box math questions are discussed, and the students get an opportunity to work on problems together by talking about how they come to conclusions. “It’s that interchanging discussion about math that makes a difference,” said Anyan. “They sometimes can learn from each other even better than they learn from adults. It’s never definitive where we say you’re right or you’re wrong. We ask the groups, what makes you think you’re correct, are we on the right path, and is there a different way to solve the problem.”
Halifax students have also taken part in the math Olympiads for sixth-through-eighth-graders, an international event sponsored by companies like Raytheon and General Electric. Schools can sign up to work on solving complicated math problems, and work on engineering projects like building catapults. For those in lower grades, the school offers junior math leagues through Wings, in which younger students have fun solving problems, and raise money for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. Anyan has also put an emphasis on mental math, the ability to solve harder problems in the head rather than on paper.
As for Sumdog, Halifax’s students have been outshining opponents since their first competition this past fall. In their first online competition, Halifax students squared off against six other schools in southeastern Vermont. Of the 303 students who participated, six of the top 10 finishers were Halifax students ranging from fourth- to eighth-grade. Halifax School came in first overall with 559 points, which is the average number of correct answers given by the school’s students. The next school was far behind with a score of 229.
Emma Durphey, an eighth-grader at Halifax School, says that the Sumdog competitions make math fun. “If you sit down with a book, all you’re doing is math, there isn’t much to it,” said Durphey, who placed first in a competition in January. “When you’re playing a game, you get to do fun stuff, and you have a goal.”
“It’s a challenge and it feels like you have more confidence in math” said student Paige Lane.
The Halifax students liked the competition so much that they entered a national contest competing against 3,463 other schools. While they were shooting for the top 10, the 34 students who represented Halifax came in 22nd overall, not too shabby for their first national competition. Halifax’s students went on to dominate another southeastern Vermont competition in January against four other schools, placing ninth of the top 10 individual finalists.
“It makes us feel proud because we’re working together hard as one school to move up in a competition,” said Maria Page. “If it was just one student working by themselves it would be a lot harder.” Students like Kate LeVine, Emily Worden, and Eddie Bergeron all say they enjoy the game and practice when they are at home. As Parker Lane, a second-grader, put it more bluntly, “It’s awesome.”
“Math is usually one of our top classes in terms of what the kids like, which is fairly unusual,” said Anyan. “We’re working very hard to overcome the ‘Oh, I was never good at math anyway’ way of thinking. They’re excited about Sumdog because it’s hard sometimes when you’re in a small school. Sometimes you feel a little more isolated and that no one knows what you’re doing at your school.”