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Southview Elementary Waconia Middle School

There are tricks to solving a slide tile puzzle. At first, what appears to be a simple sequencing challenge turns into many squares of numbers that quickly get mixed up. It takes grit and, sometimes, an outsider’s perspective and instruction to achieve the satisfying completion of an orderly grid. 

This experience was among the many lessons learned—and taught—two afternoons at Southview Elementary in November. And it wasn’t classroom teachers giving the lessons. 

The first pieces to this puzzle came together when eighth-grade math teacher and known Rubik’s Cube fanatic Bryan Kinkel structured his eighth-grade personalized learning period (PLP) around logic and puzzle problem-solving. The PLP program provides engaging curriculum enrichments beyond the offerings in a typical classroom setting for Waconia Middle School students.  

The focus of Kinkel’s group was on algorithm writing—how to write instructions to achieve an objective. “The students were given a goal of systematically solving a puzzle (like a Rubik’s Cube), and writing a manual explaining the steps,” Kinkel described. “Then I thought, let’s not only write the manual; let’s have them go and teach it.” 

So Kinkel contacted two teachers he knew at Southview and arranged times for his eighth-grade PLP puzzle group to try their hands at instructing second and third graders in Karen Cardinal’s and Matthew Sandfort’s classrooms. Each eighth grader assembled about four elementary students and began with either the manual puzzle, or an iPad loaded with the slide tile puzzle app, placed in each young student’s hands. Then fingers started moving.

“Can I give you a boost?” an eighth grader asked a second grader, going on to explain, “You want to create a space; create a space near the one. . . . Put your three in a corner and the four has to be under it.” And so it went.

Solutions were not straightforward. There were giggles and frustration. “First they ask for help, and then they hide it from me!” shared one exasperated and goal-oriented eighth-grade instructor. More giggles. “I have the loudest group!” he said. Kinkel jumped in with that group of gregarious second graders, “You need to ask him for help; you don’t want him to have a nervous breakdown!” A few more minutes, and out came, “You solved it! Want to try something harder?” With a response of, “Sure, this is simple!” Followed by, “Exactly! That was my point.”

According to Kinkel, slide tile puzzles exercise math skills through pattern recognition. “So, it’s a cross between 2-dimensional and 3-dimensional geometry. When you move these pieces, in this fashion, this happens,” Kinkel explained. “This is essentially a 2-dimensional version of a Rubik’s Cube, so it’s kind of a cool puzzle. Hopefully our kids are showing these little tricks to the students about how these pieces interact with each other. Knowing the tricks helps you get the pieces in all in the right places.”

Eighth-grader Kendra Borland worked with second graders in Mrs. Cardinal’s class. “It was really fun. It was entertaining to help them and see them try to figure out how to solve the puzzle like I did when I first got it. Teaching them the algorithms inside of the puzzle . . . I could see a few of them get it right away and a few needed more help. I think we were really prepared for it; more than I thought I was,” said Kendra.

Prior to meeting the elementary students, Kinkel gave his eighth graders a template of how to write a lesson plan, with materials needed and procedures to follow, along with time to prepare and share. “We condensed all of their good ideas,” Kinkel said. “Then we talked about ‘what ifs’ and hypothesized about what could go well or go poorly. They then tried their plans on their eighth-grade peers. One of our concerns was whether this 2-D puzzle would be too hard or too easy for these third or second graders.”   

After the experience, Kinkel’s students reflected on their own learning. “It was harder to keep everyone on the same page, even in such a small group,” said one eighth grader. “Second grade was a good grade level because they paid attention; more than older kids would have, but they still understood the challenge,” said another. Letting kids pick their slide tile puzzle picture and getting to know each student’s motivator was another takeaway.

Second-grade teacher Karen Cardinal expressed gratitude for the experience. “It was inspiring to watch the interaction between the second graders and the eighth-grade math ‘teachers,’” she said. “As I roamed around to all the small groups, there was total engagement and effort. The task for the second graders was motivating, yet challenging, and they gave their full attention and perseverance while being encouraged and guided by the older math students who showed smiles, patience, and provided a fun experience. I hope we can be part of more of these learning experiences between the schools and different ages. Such authentic and enjoyable learning by all. Many thanks to Mr. Kinkel and his math students!”

Since Kinkel can’t seem to get enough of puzzles, he takes on freelance work for Rubik’s Cube, the company, in the summertime, to write solution manuals and lesson plans for implementing puzzles in schools. If the trick to multilayered educational opportunities is about creating the space, then Kinkel and his teacher and student collaborators have puzzled through a solution indeed.

Guest Columnist
Christina Catron
Contributing writer for Waconia Public Schools