Zombies plus math equals classroom success

Zombies and dancing give Perkins students new reasons to be excited about learning geometry

Zombie silhouettes

Zombies are an unusual addition to math class.

March 11, 2015

A haunting melody poured from the speakers as students entered the classroom: fast-paced strings growing more urgent and cacophonous. The students whispered excitedly about zombies as they took their seats.

Ronen, 18, walked to the front of the class and led his classmates through a “Walking Dead”-themed geometry exercise he had put together with the help of his teaching assistant, Jared Miller. Ronen’s classmates quickly begin calculating degrees and angles of potential zombie escape routes.

Designing an engaging geometry curriculum can be challenging enough. But it becomes more complex when the students, like Ronen and his classmates, are blind or visually impaired. Math instruction, especially geometry, typically incorporates many visual aspects such as charts and graphs. So Perkins math instructors need to design curriculum and classroom aids that help students grasp spatial concepts such as shapes, angles, area and perimeter.

This means creating 3-D models, making braille worksheets and customizing lesson plans based on students’ needs. But it can also mean finding a way to build a lesson around a student’s particular interests.

Pop into the Secondary Program math classroom on any given day, and you might hide from imaginary zombies, discuss an episode of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” or dance to Pharrell’s song “Happy.”  A student who loves rap music uses algebra to calculate the time it would take him to drive to the homes of various rap stars. Another student explores functional math through word problems about the history and landmarks in her hometown.

This customized approach to instruction also gives students the opportunity to lead group work and design their own learning experiences. Ronen, who led the zombie exercise, was considerably less enthusiastic about math a year ago. An avid creative writer, Ronen thrived in English class but grew easily frustrated with math. At the beginning of the school year, he was adamant that he did not want to take a math class this year.

Miller, the teaching assistant, realized that engaging Ronen could be a challenge. When several students expressed their interest in “The Walking Dead,” a cable TV show about zombies, Miller saw the opportunity to let the teen use his creativity. The pair worked together to create a short story filled with geometry word problems based on the show’s characters.

Ronen improved his geometry skills as he designed and solved the word problems. By the time he was ready to share the activity, he was confident in presenting his story and leading his classmates in the exercise. His classmates responded with enthusiasm, figuring out the problems using a variety of assistive technology, including iPads, braille notetakers and large print.

“A lot of the students are hungry for creativity,” said Miller. “They just need the opportunity and someone to support them.”

Emily Yoder is a development officer in the Trust Department at Perkins.