BIG Numbers

Those BIG numbers fascinate, don’t they? I’ve watched 5th and 6th graders gathered around the teacher just to hear more about the size of a million, or even a billion. Ths article, Thinking Involving Very Large and Very Small Quantities, shows how we, as adults, often fail to comprehend such quantities. The article begins: “Intuitively a million is a lot more like a billion than ten is like one hundred, because our intuition has some grasp of ten and one hundred, but we have little grasp of what millions and billions involve. Fortunately, there is often a way to make intelligent decisions involving big quantities. Use arithmetic!” Topics here, which can generally be dealt with through just multiplication and division, include national finances, terrorism, airplane crashes and lotteries among others.

For your own classroom, I’ve looked for problems that may open discussion to large numbers. Please share your finds with your colleagues by posting comments.

How Much is a Million?
This lesson focuses students on the concept of 1,000,000. It allows them to see first hand the sheer size of 1 million while at the same time providing them with an introduction to sampling and its use in mathematics. Students will use grains of rice and a balance to figure out the approximate volume and weight of 1,000,000 grains of rice. The lesson, which involves solving an equation, can easily be adapted for pre-algebra middle school students.

Too Big or Too Small
This unit features three activities, but I’m recommending only the first of these. Here students explore whether one million dollars will fit into a standard suitcase. If so, how large would the suitcase need to be?  How much would it weigh? Figuring out real answers to these questions can promote number sense.

Making Your First Million
In this activity for grades 4-6, students attempt to identify the concept of a million by working with smaller numerical units, such as blocks of 10 or 100, and then expanding the idea by multiplication or repeated addition until a million is reached. Additionally, they use critical thinking to analyze situations and to identify mathematical patterns that will enable them to develop the concept of very large numbers.

The MegaPenny Project
This site illustrates the magnitude of large numbers by showing and describing arrangements of large quantities of U.S. pennies. It begins with 16 pennies that measure one inch when stacked and one foot when placed in a row. The next visual shows a thousand pennies, and in progressive steps the site builds to a quintillion pennies. All pages have tables at the bottom listing the value of the pennies on the page, size of the pile, weight, and area (if laid flat).

One Grain of Rice
Beginning with the famous story of the village girl trying to feed her people, the lesson involves students in the mathematics of exponential growth. Students work collaboratively to come up with a bargaining plan to trick a raja into feeding the village using algebra and estimation. The complete activity includes the development of an exponential equation, but just following the growth of the number of rice grains throughout the story gives a good introduction to exponential growth. Questions for students and ideas for assessment are provided.

Finally, from the Figure This! collection, developed especially for middle school students, come these short but interesting problems on working with large numbers. Each question contains a hint on how to get started and a complete mathematical set-up on how to solve it.

How Fast Does Your Heart Beat?
If you started counting your heartbeats at midnight on January 1, 2000, when would you count the thousandth beat? The billionth?

How Much is Your Time Worth?
Would you rather work seven days at $20 per day, or be paid $2 for the first day and have your salary double for every day of the week

How Much Water Do You Waste?
If the faucet leaks 2 drops every second for a week, how much water goes to waste—enough to fill a glass, a sink, or a bathtub?

We Want Your Feedback
We want and need your ideas, suggestions, and observations. What would you like to know more about? What questions have your students asked? We invite you to share with us and other readers by posting your comments. Please check back often for our newest posts or download the RSS feed for this blog. Let us know what you think and tell us how we can serve you better. We appreciate your feedback on all of our Middle School Portal 2 publications. You can also email us at msp@msteacher.org. Post updated 4/09/2012.

Crippling with Compassion?

Strange title? It comes from teacher Ellen Berg’s article in Teacher Magazine, Teaching Secrets: Don’t Cripple With Compassion. From her perspective, “One of the major issues with American teachers especially is our predilection to rescue kids instead of letting them struggle with the content a bit. In essence, we’re too compassionate.” It is second nature for us as teachers to help our students, but do we rush in on rescue missions too often and too soon?

Berg writes, “I get how difficult it is to step back and let them struggle, but I also know that it’s in the disequilibrium that kids have to make sense of things and that’s when the learning happens. If we do it for them, why would they be persistent with a problem or give it more than 30 seconds? And how can they become confident, self-directed learners if we don’t ever let them have that experience? Finally, why would they ever believe that they are able to figure it out if we show them by our actions that we don’t believe they can, either?”

Thinking of how we math teachers might challenge students to tough thinking, I looked around for problems that would work in middle school classrooms. Here are a few below, but please share any of your favorites from the classroom in the comments section.

Balanced Assessment

A set of more than 300 assessment tasks actually designed for off-the-wall thinking. Most tasks, indexed for grades K-12, incorporate a story problem and include hands-on activities. Some intriguing titles include Confetti Crush, Walkway, and Hockey Pucks. Rubrics for each task are provided.

Understanding Distance, Speed, and Time Relationships

In these two lessons, students use an online simulation of one or two runners along a track. Students control the speed and starting point of the runner, watch the race, and examine a graph showing time versus distance. Students can use the activity to come to conclusions on the distance, speed, and time relationship. They can also use it to consider the graphical representation and the concept of slope.

Measuring the Circumference of the Earth

Through this online project, students learn about Eratosthenes and actually do a similar measurement that yields a close estimate of the earth’s circumference. It’s a challenge! Even with access to only one computer, students can obtain data from other schools that lie approximately on their own longitude. Careful instructions guide the students in carrying out the experiment and analyzing the data collected. The project also provides activities, reference materials, online help, and a teacher area.

Down the Drain: How Much Water Do You Use?

Students first collect data from their household members and their classmates and then determine the average amount of water used by one person in a day. They compare their average to the average amount of water used per person per day in other parts of the world. Through the Internet, they can collect and share information with other students from around the country and the world. A teacher’s guide is included as well as guidelines on how students can publish reports, photos, or other work directly to the project web site.

Accessing and Investigating Population Data

In these activities, students use census data available on the web to examine questions about population. They also formulate their own questions. For example, in one section they analyze statistics from five states of their choice, develop specific research questions using the data, and create three graphs to compare and contrast the information.

The Handshake Problem

This two-lesson unit allows students to discover patterns in a fictional but real-world scenario: How many handshakes occur when the nine Supreme Court justices shake hands with each other? Students explore—through a table, a graph, and finally an algebraic formula—the number of handshakes in any size group. A second pattern is explored, that of triangular numbers; again, students generalize the pattern with variables. The lessons are well illustrated and include background information for the teacher.

These problems require patience and analytical thinking, even the easiest of them. I would not give such problems without having prepared my students with the needed tools to do them, if not before they start the work, then as they’re doing it. As Ellen Berg put it, “I’m not talking about failing to scaffold instruction or give kids input. Of course we want to do that. What I’m talking about is resisting the urge to fix things for them instead of asking more questions to get them thinking. I’m talking about sometimes just telling them, ‘I know you can do this,’ and walking away.”

Another teacher who feels that we need to help math students less is Dan Meyer, a high school math teacher. This 11-minute talk, Math Needs a Makeover, begins with: “I teach high school math. I sell a product to a market that doesn’t want it but is forced by law to buy it.” From there he moves to actual examples of textbook math versus ways to present real, hard thinking problems. Worth watching!

Citation: From Teacher Magazine [Teacher Update], Wednesday, May 26, 2010. See  http://www.edweek.org/tm/articles/2010/05/26/tln_berg_compassion.html?tkn=URPFzAhx52nB4%2FOp1kNYkfQZs6eV8MJI9rtk&cmp=clp-edweek

We Want Your Feedback
We want and need your ideas, suggestions, and observations. What would you like to know more about? What questions have your students asked? We invite you to share with us and other readers by posting your comments. Please check back often for our newest posts or download the RSS feed for this blog. Let us know what you think and tell us how we can serve you better. We appreciate your feedback on all of our Middle School Portal 2 publications. You can also email us at msp@msteacher.org. Post updated 4/12/2012.

Taking Advantage of Technology

The computer can be a distraction and a frustration, but it can also be a teaching tool. Usually, you hear that you should be using technology in your teaching, but no one gives an example of a site that works for middle school curriculum. Here are a few online resources that actually show the potential of the Internet as a teaching strategy.


The MegaPenny Project

This site shows arrangements of large quantities of U.S. pennies. It begins with only 16 pennies, which measure one inch when stacked and one foot when laid in a row. The visuals build to a thousand pennies and in progressive steps to a million and even a quintillion pennies! All pages have tables at the bottom listing the value of the pennies on the page, size of the pile, weight, and area (if laid flat). The site can be used to launch lessons on large numbers, volume versus area, or multiplication by a factor of 10.

Cynthia Lanius’ Fractal Unit
In this unit developed for middle school students, the lessons begin with a discussion of why we study fractals and then provide step-by-step explanations of how to make fractals, first by hand and then using Java applets—an excellent strategy! But the unit goes further; it actually explains the properties of fractals in terms that make sense to students and teachers alike.

The Pythagorean Theorem
[This site is temporarily unavailable – we are going to leave this link in place and continue to check back in case it revives – 6/26/2010]
This site invites learners to discover for themselves “an important relationship between the three sides of a right triangle.” Five interactive, visual exercises require students to delve deeper into the mystery; each exercise is a hint that motivates and entices. The tutorial ends with information on Pythagoras and problems that rely on the theorem for their solutions.  

Fraction Sorter
A visual support to understanding the magnitude of fractions!  Using this applet, the student represents two to four fractions by dividing and shading areas of squares or circles and then ordering the fractions from smallest to largest on a number line. The applet even checks if a fraction is correctly modeled and keeps score. From Project Interactivate Activities.

Algebra Balance Scales — Negatives
This virtual balance scale offers students an experimental way to learn about solving linear equations involving negative numbers. The applet presents an equation for the student to illustrate by balancing the scale using blue blocks for positives and red balloons for negatives. The student then solves the equation while a record of the steps taken, written in algebraic terms, is shown on the screen. The exercise reinforces the idea that what is done to one side of an equation must be done to the other side to maintain balance. From the National Library of Virtual Manipulatives.

Geometric Solids
This tool allows learners to investigate various geometric solids and their properties. They can manipulate and color each shape to explore the number of faces, edges, and vertices, and to answer the following question: For any polyhedron, what is the relationship between the number of faces, vertices, and edges?  From Illuminations, National Council of Teachers of Mathematics Vision for School Mathematics.

We Want Your Feedback
We want and need your ideas, suggestions, and observations. What would you like to know more about? What questions have your students asked? We invite you to share with us and other readers by posting your comments. Please check back often for our newest posts or download the RSS feed for this blog. Let us know what you think and tell us how we can serve you better. We appreciate your feedback on all of our Middle School Portal 2 publications. You can also email us at msp@msteacher.org. Post updated 4/05/2012.

Algebra: Teaching Concepts

When we teach algebra, most teachers find that getting across the manipulation of expressions is far easier than teaching the big ideas that underlie algebra. Lately I’ve run across sites that help middle school students grasp those concepts. I’d like to share them with you in this post and ask for your ideas in return.

First, two excellent ideas on helping students walk the bridge from arithmetic to algebra:

Building Bridges In this lesson, students move from arithmetical to algebraic thinking by exploring problems that are not limited to single-solution responses. These are common, not complex, problems that are developed through questioning to a higher level. Within real-world contexts, students organize values into tables and graphs, then note the patterns, and finally express them symbolically.

Difference of Squares uses a series of related arithmetic experiences to prompt students to generalize into more abstract ideas. In particular, students explore arithmetic statements leading to a result that is the factoring pattern for the difference of two squares. Very well done.

Equivalence is one of those underlying concepts that make algebraic reasoning possible. Everything Balances Out in the End offers a unit in which students use online pan balances to study key aspects of equivalence. The three lessons focus on balancing shapes to study equality, then balancing algebraic statements in order to explore simplifying expressions, order of operations, and determining if algebraic expressions are equal.

The next lesson, Equations of Attack, is a game but developed to uncover the algebra beneath the strategies. The two players each plot points on a coordinate grid to represent their ships and points along the y-axis to represent cannons. Slopes are chosen randomly (from a deck of prepared cards) to determine the line and its equation of attack. Students use their algebraic skills to sink their opponent’s ships and win the game. Afterwards, the algebraic approach to the game is investigated.

Walk the Plank is also a game. You need to place one end of a wooden board on a bathroom scale and the other end on a textbook. Students can “walk the plank” and record the weight measurement as their distance from the scale changes. This investigation leads to a real world occurrence of negative slope.

A final teaching idea develops students’ understanding of algebraic symbols: Extending to Symbols.  As students begin to use symbolic representations, they use variables as unknowns. To help their concept of symbolic representation to grow, they need to explore questions such as: What is an identity? and When are two symbolic representations equal? This activity engages students in work with an online algebraic balance.

Each of these lessons comes from NCTM’s Illuminations site, a rich source for K-12 teaching.


We Want Your Feedback
We want and need your ideas, suggestions, and observations. What would you like to know more about? What questions have your students asked? We invite you to share with us and other readers by posting your comments. Please check back often for our newest posts or download the RSS feed for this blog. Let us know what you think and tell us how we can serve you better. We appreciate your feedback on all of our Middle School Portal 2 publications. You can also email us at msp@msteacher.org. Post updated 11/08/2011.

Triangles Online

How much you want your middle school students to learn about triangles depends on many factors you take into account as you plan. If lesson ideas that are “hands-on,” actually or virtually, enter into that planning, you may find this wide range of resources useful. Please share your own teaching ideas with colleagues by commenting on this post!

Discovering the Area Formula for Triangles
In this lesson, students develop the area formula for a triangle. Students find the area of rectangles and squares, and compare them to the areas of triangles derived from the original shape. Student handouts are included here.

Congruence of Triangles (Grades 6-8)
With this virtual manipulative, students arrange sides and angles to construct congruent triangles. They drag line segments and angles to form triangles and flip the triangles as needed to show congruence. Options include constructing triangles given three sides (SSS), two sides and the included angle (SAS), and two angles and an included side (ASA). But the option that will motivate most discussion is constructing two triangles given two sides and a nonincluded angle (SSA). The question in this case is: Can you find two triangles that are not congruent?

Transformations—Reflections
Here students can manipulate one of six geometric figures on one side of a line of symmetry and observe the effect on its image on the other side. A triangle may be selected and then translated and rotated. The line of symmetry can be moved as well, even rotated, giving more hands-on experience with reflection as students observe the effect on the image of the triangle.

The Pythagorean Theorem
This site invites learners to discover for themselves “an important relationship between the three sides of a right triangle.” The site’s author, Jacobo Bulaevsky, speaks directly to students, encouraging them throughout five interactive exercises to delve deeper into the mystery. Within each exercise he gives hints that will motivate and entice your students.


We Want Your Feedback
We want and need your ideas, suggestions, and observations. What would you like to know more about? What questions have your students asked? We invite you to share with us and other readers by posting your comments. Please check back often for our newest posts or download the RSS feed for this blog. Let us know what you think and tell us how we can serve you better. We appreciate your feedback on all of our Middle School Portal 2 publications. You can also email us at msp@msteacher.org. Post updated 12/09/2011.