In Dallas-Fort Worth math classes, fantasy football meets real learning

SOUTHLAKE -- Claire Unruh, 11, peered at the computer, weighing the best choice for the quarterback of her football franchise, the Stallions.

After watching the Saints' Drew Brees in last year's Super Bowl, he's her top pick. But what about Washington's Donovan McNabb, who always puts up big numbers? Her mom's advice was to go with the Texans' Matt Schaub.

Claire ended up drafting all three quarterbacks for her fantasy football team -- even though the players cost her 42 percent of her budget -- in hopes that she will come out on top of the league at Durham Intermediate School.

For the next 17 weeks, Durham's sixth-graders are playing fantasy football, the wildly popular game that has millions of participants nationwide. Most who play do so for bragging rights among their peers and the chance to win a few bucks.

But these students are playing in teacher Lance Mangham's math class.

It's a trend that is reaching classrooms across the country as teachers search for lessons that go beyond traditional textbooks and worksheets to tap students' interests.

Empirical data show that classroom fantasy-sports programs help improve grades and test scores.

In a 2009 survey of middle and high school students by the University of Mississippi, 56 percent of boys and 45 percent of girls said they learned math easier because they played fantasy sports in class. And 33 percent of boys and 28 percent of girls said their grades improved.

Grant Simpson used fantasy football while teaching at Hidden Lakes Elementary School in the Keller school district, an innovation that helped him be named the 2008 Texas teacher of the year.

"I think any time you can engage students in something that has a real-world connection, I think they will retain it more," said Simpson, who is now Timberview Middle School's technology integration coach. "It's a project that lasts the whole first few months of the year. It is constantly tying back material from the beginning of the semester. And they have fun with it."

Having fun learning

As with most fantasy football leagues, players create dream teams by drafting NFL athletes. They pick starting lineups and compete using statistics from real games.

But instead of relying on computers to compute points, students do their own calculations.

Last week, Durham students, parents and teachers gathered for an after-school draft party (adults play in a separate league). Mangham donned a Green Bay Packers cheesehead hat and handed out football cards as door prizes.

The student owners each received $65 million (in mythical money) to finance their teams. They also received a list of players, complete with prices. Brees, for example, went for $13 million.

Many families had done homework and quickly filled in their rosters. Others spent nearly an hour poring over statistics and reports, including some with graphs produced by previous years' students.

"I did not get [running back] Felix Jones from the Cowboys. Too expensive," said Sean Rohmer, 12, of Southlake. "I was already way over, so I had to put some players back."

Amy Semrak, whose son Zackery is a Durham sixth-grader, said she thinks the program is a great idea.

"Anything that makes learning fun and keeps the kids' attention is a good idea," she said. "Right now, they just see it as fun, and at the end, they'll see how they learned something."

Math and money

Rules and scoring vary among student leagues.

Teachers tailor the program to fit their students' curriculum, said Dan Flockhart, a San Francisco teacher who published his lesson plans on fantasy football in 2005.

Flockhart's book, Fantasy Football and Mathematics, includes more than 100 equations that can be used for scoring. A touchdown can be worth six points or the square root of 36. He now has guides for teaching fantasy baseball, soccer and basketball.

One of the first lessons students learn from the draft process is to not spend all their money on one or two stars. The salary cap helps level the playing field with students who may be less familiar with pro football, he said.

"That's why so many girls win the game," Flockhart said. "They're better with their money and they spread it out."

In the Mansfield school district, 33 pre-AP math students in Laura Thomason's class at Cross Timbers Intermediate School have a $40 million spending limit for their teams.

Thomason's students aren't doing algebraic equations yet, but fantasy football will introduce them to negative numbers because the athletes lose points for interceptions and fumbles.

It is important to make math concepts meaningful to students so they grasp the basics they will need to build on, Thomason said.

"For so many kids, it's been a negative thing in the past. We are trying to make it enjoyable, and making it relevant to them is highly important, especially at this age," she said.

Jessamy Brown, 817-390-7326