March Math Madness: Making Mental Math Cool to Kids

With 2019’s March Madness set to begin on March 19th, educators have more than their basketball brackets to prepare!! With my last few posts focusing on literacy, it is time to give math some love! Similar to cultivating a culture of reading in your classrooms and schools, it important to create a culture of math: to make math cool! It just so happens that March gives us, as educators, the perfect opportunity to do so.

Regardless of what age you teach, this competition is possible, purposeful, and plain ol’ FUN.

shutterstock_790977127 (1)The Purpose

Math is about problem solving and calculation. Part of being a great mathematician is becoming fluent in the language of numbers and quickly calculating math facts. The more fluently students can perform math facts, the more brain power they can use to persevere through challenging problems. The purpose of March Math Madness is to

🏀 Showcase the daily mental math facts students practice in class

🏀 Build momentum and inspire a love of math in all students

The Basics

Create a BRACKET → Include the names of all the students in your classroom/grade level. If you want to give a few math speed drills in order to “seed” the students, you can. I usually do it alphabetically to keep it neutral and slightly less predictable.

Decide the ROLES → You usually need a question announcer (adult), scorekeeper/referee (adult or very mature student), bracket updater (adult or student with neat handwriting)

Review and practice the NORMS → For example, students must shake hands and face one another during the round and shake hands after the round is finished. Students must speak loudly enough for all to hear. Students must only say aloud one answer (they cannot continue to guess if their first answer is incorrect).

Let the COMPETITION BEGIN → Create your question sheets, decide what the champion will earn (we embroidered a sweatshirt that said 2019 Math Champion under the student’s name), and inform parents if you want family attendance or involvement.

🏀 Middle/High Questions

🏀 Elementary Questions (created by Shelby Godfrey, current 2nd grade teacher at Henderson Collegiate Elementary School in Henderson, North Carolina)


A Few Nuances


In kindergarten we had students show their answers instead of yell them out. For example, if the math problem was, “Show me 4,” students had to show 4 on their hands instead of say it out loud. This is because so much of kindergarten math involves using objects to count, so we wanted students to continue using objects (i.e., their fingers) to practice counting. We began the verbal game with 1st graders to begin building the mental math proficiency.

🏀 Shelby Godfrey, current teacher at Henderson Collegiate Elementary School created a March Math Madness Elementary Logistics document for the entire staff.


Each grade level has their own bracket. Once we get to the final four in each grade level, those four students are the math mini champions (representatives from that grade level). You could also go to a final mini champion for each grade level.

While in their individual grades, math facts include any that students have been taught up through their current grade level. Example: 5th grade students would have math facts that include basic addition, subtraction, multiplication, division. They would also have math facts that include fraction multiplication and division, like ¼ of 24. 6th grade students would have math facts that include all of the 5th grade content as well as problems involving ratios.

The final four from each grade then go to the schoolwide sweet 16. This is exciting because in the schoolwide final four, there is one student from each grade level and the opportunity for a 5th grader to defeat an 8th grader. In this competition, we only compete with facts that our youngest competitors have been taught in order to provide an equal chance at victory. One year, I had two brothers who were two grade levels apart end up competing in the finals! It made for an exciting competition.

shutterstock_238807483Optional Fun

Give students their own blank brackets to fill in as the tournament progresses. Be careful about allowing students to “predict” winners as this can potentially create hurtful reactions when there is an upset (unexpected win/loss) or lead to taunting and bullying. If you teach all of this ahead of time and explain how to make a bracket while still supporting whoever wins, then have at it! Just a friendly reminder to proceed with caution so that March Math Madness inspires a love of math, not tears.

Prior to creating the initial bracket, give a math facts speed drill to “seed” students and then bracket students based off of their seed. The top 8 from the speed drill could even be guaranteed a spot in the sweet 16, with the remaining 8 seats determined by the head to head competition.

🏀 Let the March Math Madness begin!!

meghan thompson

Meghan Thompson joined Teach For America in 2008 and began her career in education as a 9th-12th Special Education Teacher in Charlotte, NC. In 2010, she was a member of the founding team at Henderson Collegiate (a school that has ranked in the top 3.5% of all NC public schools for the past 4 years). In 2014, she was a member of the founding team at Democracy Prep Baton Rouge and throughout her time at DPBR served as a middle school ELA teacher, middle school math teacher and the Middle School Campus Director.

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