ST Math’s JiJi Inspires Jedi Master In Math at Dream Lake Elementary In Orlando, Florida

Co-written by Sarah Cargill of Getting Smart and Christine Byrd of MIND Research Institute

Patty Weisbach, Assistant Principal at Dream Lake Elementary, says she has countless stories about the ways that ST Math’s JiJi the penguin, created by MIND Research Institute, created a culture of success around math at her school. Yet, one story in particular stands out.

Sarah Flores, a student who began as a preschooler in the self-contained autism program at three years old, showed very little speech, facial affect, or social interaction with other children or adults. What turned Sarah’s outlook around, Weisbach believes, is the motivation and inspiration the school centered around math performance.

“She was just really withdrawn and socially inept. She didn’t like reading, she didn’t like math. Just nothing,” says mother Karensa Flores.

Luckily, Dream Lake had implemented ST Math for 3rd grade, and when Sarah was introduced to its penguin mascot JiJi, she was hooked. She loved playing the math games so much that her teacher used it as an incentive and reward. Sarah had to complete the school’s computer-based reading comprehension program and score at least 80 percent proficient before being “permitted” to have JiJi game time. (She didn’t know that she would have JiJi time anyway.)

“I think that because autistic learners are visual, and there is no sound – it is all visual in JiJi math – all the kids just get in the zone with it,” says Flores. “It’s always changing. It’s always different.”

ST Math requires students to solve visual puzzles in challenges games that effectively reinforce math learning. The game format excites a competitive drive, motivating students to to greater math learning proficiency and success. “We celebrate when we see the big block number at the end of the challenge,” says Weisbach.

MIND’s spatial-temporal approach visualizes basic math facts and uses an engaging, problem-solving game strategy.

“At Dream Lake, we have a motivational aspect to our ST Math program that goes beyond incremental awards,” says Weisbach. When students complete the ST Math program, they receive a specially designed t-shirt that showcases them as JiJi Jedi Masters.

During the summer before fourth grade Sarah’s whole family started playing the challenge games with her. Her parents were amazed to watch her focus on the program for up to an hour at a time. When the problems got too tricky, she would leave it for 30 minutes and then come back to it determined to try again and succeed.

“We try very hard to celebrate and honor the notion that if you work at something really hard, even when it seems like you’re never going to get it,” says Weisbach, “you will feel really good about yourself and be able to help others with what you have learned.”

To bring this point home, Dream Lake holds JiJi Jedi Master ceremonies, which are unplanned and only happen once enough students in the class have completed the ST Math challenges. The school principal surprises the students, dressed up as a Star Wars JiJi character, complete with a light sabre. The teachers have a black light show, blast Star Wars Music, and present the students with their t-shirts to excite them about their learning success.

“The kids never know when Darth Vader JiJi is going to make an appearance,” says Weisbach. “We inform the teachers a few days ahead that a special visitor is coming but we don’t tell the kids.”

In fourth grade, Sarah became determined to earn her bright orange JiJi Jedi Master t-shirt, committing to finishing the fourth-grade ST Math program and the challenge games in the last nine weeks of the school year.

Flores says, “When she finished, she came running down the hall screaming ‘I did the challenge! I did the challenge!’”

Then, Flores watched her daughter in the elaborate JiJi Jedi Masters ceremony, where black lights, loud music and screaming kids would usually overwhelm her daughter’s senses. Instead, her daughter was on stage, screaming and cheering, exhilarated by her sense of accomplishment.

Sarah in her JiJi Jedi Master T-shirt

“She slept in that shirt for days” says Flores. “After that, she was talking to teachers she’d never even met, telling them she’d succeeded at the JiJi Jedi Master challenge.”  Her autistic daughter, who she once feared would never speak, had completed blossomed socially – and academically. Not only is Sarah a JiJi Jedi Master among fourth graders, but her reading level is now at grade level, her mom reports. Sarah even loves science, and connects math concepts to her science lessons, according to her teachers.

The knighting ceremonies have been a huge success at the school, inspiring all students to successfully conquer the ST Math challenges in order to be honored by Darth Vader JiJi. “Once we did the first knighting, the whole thing caught fire,” says Weisbach. “We ended the year with 200 JiJi Jedi Masters!”

Sarah was one of them. At the end of the year, Sarah passed the math FCAT and had dramatically improved her reading score. Weisbach says, “The Sarah we knew as a 3-year-old is not the 10-year-old who proudly wears her JiJi Jedi Master t-shirt to prove that she is a JiJi Jedi Master!”

Her mother is thrilled with Sarah’s progress, and says much of it is owed to ST Math. “With technology now, we as parents and as teachers have to find a way to say, ‘We can take learning to next level, we can make learning as fun as playing on your xBox,’” says Flores. “When you step in with programs like these, it boosts their initiative and their desire to learn.”

MIND Research Institute is a Getting Smart Advocacy Partner.

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