It’s All Fun & Games Part 1: TRASHKETBALL

Really??  Yes, really.  For me, math class really is all about the fun and games…. or at least I’m constantly *striving* to structure my classes in a meaningful and entertaining way.

As math teachers, it’s so easy for us to come up with questions on the spot.  We KNOW the material because we’ve been teaching for “x” number of years and we aced our own math classes as we advanced from one level to the next.  I would argue, though, that:

  • A meaningful lesson really takes more thought than “I’m going to cover this topic today and test next Thursday,” forcing kids to copy questions off the board ad boredom.
  • Students learn SO much more when they’re having structured fun while practicing a necessary skill.

Don’t get me wrong – there are days where I fail at my #lifegoal and resort to rote practice because of the difficulty of the topic, the level of student, or a myriad of other reasons.  Especially in IB Math and other upper-level classes, teachers tend to rely on worksheet and lecture-style lessons.  Here’s why we can often get away with it:

(1) “Students won’t be successful in college if we hold their hands (read: incorporate fun & games) now!”

(2)  “Fun and games will make my class too easy and childish.”

(3)  Advanced students are naturally more inclined to learn material, whether they are engaging with one another on a daily basis or reading the textbook to fill the gaps from their class lectures.

(4)  Honors teachers often have a higher level of mathematical understanding and tend to teach in the way they were instructed… to no fault of their own.  They haven’t needed to rethink or be creative in their approach to teaching because of #3.


I used to be more like that.  What changed?  I TAUGHT MIDDLE SCHOOL FOR A YEAR.  Gasp.  I know I’ve said it before, but serious kudos to all of you middle school teachers out there.  You have the very challenging job of keeping kids on task, helping them to develop to their full potential as human beings, and managing to get them to learn a little something in the process.  Teaching middle school requires short activities, constant competition, and a masterful ability to entertain a group of highly energetic kids.

When I returned to high school, I realized that I could bring the same types of engaging activities, discussions, and competitions not only to my ESOL students, but also to my IB classes.  New #lifegoal?  Talk less;  let them talk and play more.  To be honest?  Class is so much more entertaining for ME when I am not standing at the board lecturing for 90 minutes. 

So, the most recent game I introduced to this year’s cohort of IB students was Trashketball.  The games I play can be a little organizationally involved at times, but this one should hopefully make a lot of sense.  And to be honest, sometimes I make up the rules as I go along.  Feel free to do the same – you have to do what works for you!


  • To turn any practice or review problem set into a competition.
  • To combine mathematical ability with random “athletic” skills that keep the game interesting & allow different sets of students to shine.

The Set-Up:

  • A TrashketballI have 3 beanie babies I let them choose from (Piggy, Peppa Pig, and Owl), but any projectile will work.  Avoid super bouncy balls at all costs.
  • An empty trash can or recycling binIf I know we’re about to play I try to hide one of the two before class – then students don’t end up filling it with gross things before dunking my precious animals into the bin.
  • Pre-Determined QuestionsEither snag questions and project from Power Point/ Smart Notebook, or provide a worksheet (especially for lower level classes).  If you provide a worksheet, try to jump around so the fastest-working students don’t finish 3 questions before a slower group finishes 1.  Choose the order ahead of time so you can smoothly click through the questions.
  • An Answer KeyLess to think about in the moment.  🙂
  • Desks set up in groups of 3-4Larger groups prevent students from working together.  Groups of 2 lead to too many groups and then all groups don’t have a chance to participate. 

The Rules:

Lay out the rules very clearly:

  • Groups earn 1 point for the correct answer
  • Groups earn an additional 1 or 2 points for getting a basket.  Demonstrate the 1-point marker (halfway between my desk & the door) & the 2-point marker (close to the door) so students know where to stand when they shoot.
  • ALL students in a group must have the same exact answer in order to get it right.
  • When Group 1 has an incorrect answer, I move on to Group 2.  If Sindy in Group 2 doesn’t have an answer on her paper, I move to Group 3.  When Group 3 gets it right, then one representative goes up to shoot a basket.
  • The next question will start with Group 4 so all groups have a chance to participate.

The Game:

  • Tell all groups to work on a specific question.
  • After an allotted time, check Group 1’s answer.  If they are incorrect, move on to Group 2, then 3, then 4 until all students in a group have the correct answer on their papers.
  • Have that group explain their answer/work, and then tell them to send a student up to the front to make a basket.
  • Record the points on the front white board for all students to see their progress.
  • Project a new question, and pick up with Group 5 to begin checking their answers.

Take-Aways & Tips:

  • My IB students were *really* into it – they were having awesome conversations and rocking a semester-long review.  I wouldn’t use Trashketball weekly or anything, but even incorporating it twice a year (amongst all the other crazy activities we do) helps to keep class interesting.
  • Requiring ALL students in a group to have the answer encourages them to work together.  They can often arrive at the correct answer with their peers’ help, which means I don’t have to lead the whole class through a painstaking, redundant explanation of each concept.
  • Yes, some students will copy their neighbors the entire time.  But I would argue that the benefits for the rest of the class outweigh the fact that I’m enabling a few to be lazy.  We can address those issues with specific individuals in other ways.  Moreso, those kids probably are the same ones who don’t copy notes when I’m teaching, and at least the game is getting them to write something on their papers!
  • You are the ref.  Don’t let the kids tell you otherwise.  😉


Stay tuned for “It’s All Fun & Games Part 2”, where I talk about Bluff… or the Unfair Pointless Game… or Road Rally.  You’ll just have to wait and see.

To be totally honest, I can’t take full credit for any of these activities, but I have tweaked them over the years to fit my students’ needs.  Either way, special shout-out to BVD, who helped me to add to my game portfolio and to grow in my instructional creativity for many years.

May the best team win!

Miss Elsie

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