The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

Football and Math

I’m not a particularly athletic guy. I ride my bike whenever I can, but, due to factors like having no depth perception and possibly exercise-induced asthma (or something very similar to it), I don’t do many other things that are sports-related. However, I’ve generally had an interest in sports, although it has definitely ebbed and flowed over the years. Right now, for example, my greatest interest is in championships games/series and college basketball. I also keep my eye on college football. I also really enjoy keeping up with sports that aren’t as popular in the United States, like rugby and soccer.

And yet somehow I managed to use football (American football, that is) concepts to teach a geometry lesson today.

Shocking, right?

Don’t worry; I was probably just as surprised! I don’t think any of my students were, though, possibly because they don’t actually realise that I don’t play sports.

I am sure you are wondering how I came about using football to teach geometry today, anyway. It wasn’t actually planned. I was teaching the students about the different methods of classifying triangles: by the angles (acute, right, or obtuse) and by the sides (scalene, isosceles, and equilateral). We had gone over the classification of angles yesterday, so it was an easy transition from angles to triangles. Classification by sides was a little more difficult, especially because the words are rather unusual.

A scalene triangle has no equal sides. There is no other word we use in English that has a similar or related meaning, so there’s no easy way to make a connection between scalene and unequal sides. (If you know a strategy that works, please, please, please share it with me!)

An isosceles triangle has two equal sides. This one is also difficult to equate to its meaning because we don’t use very many words that start with iso- in our language. (There are quite a few, actually, but they tend to be technical words.) Iso- is a Greek affix that means equal-sceles comes to us from Greek as well, and it is a word that we may think we recognise: skelos, which means leg. (You may be thinking this is the root for the word skeleton, but, alas, that is not correct. But if it helps to make the connection, I support that!) But since we don’t use these Greek words often in our language, we are again stuck with find our own memory trick.

The third type of triangle, an equilateral triangle, is actually much easier for us to decode. The prefix equi- means equal and we use it in a wide variety of words. The second part of the word, -lateral is a word that we have seen in our class when learning about quadrilaterals, but some of the students were having trouble remembering what it means. And this is where the football reference came to the rescue.

Several of the boys in my  class play football. One of the boys is actually the son of the Urbana Junior Football League coach. I have a miniature football in my classroom so I brought it out and asked if anyone knew what a lateral pass was in football. Some had heard the term but weren’t sure of the actual meaning. So I had one of my football players demonstrate it with me. We showed the difference between a forward pass and a lateral pass and I asked again: what do you do when you execute a lateral pass? Several students realised it was simply throwing the ball to the side instead of forward. I asked, “So if the lateral pass is a pass to the side, what does lateral mean?” Then the lights went on and almost everyone called out the answer: lateral means side! That means that an equilateral triangle is a closed figure with three equal sides!

Using football to teach geometry today reminded me of this scene from Mr. Holland’s Opus when Mr. Holland, the music teacher, has to explain to his principal why he is using rock and roll music in the classroom:

Principal Jacobs: “Mr. Holland, I do not want to interfere in the curriculum of any teacher. But next week, I have a meeting with the school board. And there are people in this community who believe that rock and roll is a message sent from the devil himself. Now when that issue comes up, what can I tell them?”

Mr. Holland: “Mrs. Jacobs, you tell them that I am teaching music, and that I will use anything from Beethoven to Billie Holiday to rock and roll, if I think it’ll help me teach a student to love music.”

Likewise for me. I will use whatever it takes to help students find the connective tissue between what they are learning and what they already know!


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