Angleside School Adventure

Angling for attention: Teacher devised board game to make geometry fun

by Samara Kalk Derby  —  4/27/2009 1:00 pm
[Originally published in The Capital Times, republished here with permission]

Chris Dyer’s students want to know if, when he becomes rich and famous, he’ll let them swim in his pool.

Dyer, an eighth-grade math teacher at Cherokee Middle School on Madison’s west side, developed a board game while student teaching at the school that was picked up by an international educational products manufacturer and has now sold more than 2,000 copies.

The game, Angleside School Adventure, teaches kids how to measure angles. While learning to play the game in class one recent afternoon, student Oscar Hernandez, 14, wondered aloud whether Dyer is a millionaire yet. Dyer laughed and assured his students that, if he becomes a millionaire, he’ll still be teaching them.

Many of Dyer’s students say he is the best math teacher they’ve had.

“He’s pretty good at explaining things to people who don’t know,” said 13-year-old Allison Ballard. “And for the people who do know, he just lets them go ahead.”

A first-year teacher, Dyer, 38, developed his game in 2006 for a University of Wisconsin-Madison education class. The assignment was to develop a hands-on interactive learning tool that he could use while student teaching. At the time, Dyer was teaching in a sixth-grade classroom and his students were learning basic angles.

“There are not a lot of tools you can use in middle school to teach angles outside of the clock and compasses,” he said, adding that he sought a more entertaining way to get the concepts across. “If you can make it fun and more like a game, kids forget that they are learning something and actually concentrate more on the game.”

And when it comes to math education, teachers need all the help they can get. U.S. students, including those in Wisconsin and Madison, lag behind those in many other nations, said Richard Askey, a retired UW-Madison mathematics professor.

Wisconsin has slipped in math relative to the nation on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a survey of what America’s students know in mathematics and eight other subjects.

“Yes, we have some serious problems,” Askey said. “Wisconsin is not where it should be and Madison doesn’t show up all that well on state tests.”

Dyer said children learn in different ways but with math “you really only get the paper and pencil and practice, practice, practice.” His game allows visual learners and kinesthetic learners — those who learn best by manipulating objects rather than just observing — to learn in a hands-on way, Dyer said.

“It brings to the table just a different tool for a teacher to use in the classroom,” he said.

Angleside School Adventure has a giant, movable compass in the middle of the board. Players roll a die, move a piece and pick a card. The card asks them to measure an angle between two places on the board.

“Anyone who falls within those parameters will either get the reward or accept the consequences,” Dyer said.

Students develop geometry and measurement skills as they move around the school-themed board. Game cards direct players to measure, compare and categorize acute, right and obtuse angles.

Ellie Ploch, 14, playing for the first time with four of her classmates, won after about three minutes. “It’s pretty cool,” she said. Dyer said the game could last three minutes or three hours depending on the cards a player picks.

Learning Resources, based in Illinois, has been selling the game for about a year. More than 2,000 copies have been sold, exceeding projections.

Dyer receives $1 a game, which sells for $18.95 to $22.95 on many educational websites, as well as on LearningResources.com, Amazon.com and QVC.com.

“I’m more pleased with the fact that they’re using it in schools because I developed it to teach the kids something,” Dyer said. “It’s not really my personal financial situation that I’m concerned about.”

Already at work on another game, Dyer is trying to make sure it has a long shelf life.

“There are some games out there that you can only play once or twice and then you know all the cards and you know what can happen,” he said. “I think the key part of marketing a successful game is its playability, something you can sit down and play many times and have a different game each time.”

Originally from suburban Kansas City, Kan., Dyer moved to Madison in 1992 to live with his father, Michael Dyer, now retired from Madison Area Technical College, where he taught psychology and coached basketball.

Dyer landed a job almost right away with Madison School & Community Recreation, eventually working in almost every after-school program in the district. He also ran a foster home in Madison from 1997 until 2000, where he provided guidance for at-risk 13- to 17-year-old boys, most of whom were in the juvenile justice system.

Dyer stopped doing foster care when he got married in 2000. Dyer lives in the Hill Farms neighborhood with his wife, Joy, an editor for the state Legislative Reference Bureau, and their son, Caleb, 3.

His started with the Madison School District in 2000 as an educational assistant for the Cluster program, which helps struggling middle school students. He worked there for four years.

Cluster is part of what is now called Affiliated Alternatives, which includes four separate programs providing educational alternatives to middle and high school youth who feel disconnected from traditional schools and have been truant or displayed bad behavior. The programs aim to boost graduation rates.

Dyer credits Anne Fischer, principal of Affiliated Alternatives, with encouraging him to get his teaching degree at UW-Madison. Fischer said she knew Dyer loved working in schools and, as an educator, she wants to see great teachers who love children and want to be there.

“When you are making as little as he did and working as hard as he was, it was pretty clear that he wasn’t doing it just for the money,” she said.

Fischer wanted Dyer to be able to make a living from working with young people.

“Frankly when I look around at Madison teachers I see a great lack of teachers of color and was really happy to be able to encourage somebody to enter the field in a place and time when we really need to have our young people see teachers who look like them,” she said.

Dyer is aware of his significance as a role model, not just for black kids but for all the kids that he teaches and who attend his school.

“Kids learn from people that they see every day,” he said. “And for them to see a black person in the school building in an educator role I think reinforces the importance of education in their lives.

“I am in their community, I’m in their neighborhood,” he added.” I’m just one of the ones who chose to go to school and bring back a little bit of what I learned to the young kids.”

Dyer is not sure why his students respond to him so positively: “I just try to be honest and as real with them as I can. I don’t try to sugarcoat things.”

Most teachers don’t make a lasting impression, Dyer said, noting he can’t remember his own eighth-grade teachers. But he hopes something about him sticks.

“More than remembering me, I hope that they remember what they learned in my class because that’ll help them a whole lot more than just remembering who I am.”

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