When our 3rd child was born, we decided to buy a used Honda Odyssey as 3 young kids were not fitting into a sedan. Being the stats geek I am (master’s in statistics at the University of South Carolina – total geek) I collected mileage and price data for all the used Odysseys for sale on dealer sites throughout South Carolina. I then created a the scatterplot shown below. I went to a dealer, showed an agent my graph, and he immediately exclaimed “Where did you get that? We create graphs like that every week!”

It was this experience that led me to the idea of using used car data to introduce linear functions. Shopping for a used car has proven to be a relevant, real life activity the students enjoy.

Here is a link to a comprehensive activity that walks students through various components I use for introducing students to linear function topics.

Used car shopping to collect data on 10 used cars of a single make and model.

Creating a scatterplot for price vs mileage of the used car of choice.

Creating a line of best fit (regression line) to model the data.

Creating a linear bi-variate equation (regression equation) to model the data.

The activity is presented on a WORD document (feel free to revise). It shows screenshots to walk student through the Carmax website (subject to Carmax revising their website). The screenshots make it easy for the student to navigate, which increases independence. (NOTE: there is an ample number of Youtube videos on using Google Sheets for this activity.)

The end product looks like this. Note the importance of using 1000s of miles as the slope is more meaningful, -$140.64 per thousand miles, as opposed to 14 cents per mile. I would start with the scatterplot alone to unpack the variables, the relationship between the variables, and the ordered pairs. Then the line and equation can be introduced to show a meaningful use of the line and the equation. The y-intercept has meaning with “0 miles” equating to a new car (I do not explain that new cars have miles already accumulated until we unpack the math).

The scatterplot above is an approach I use to introduce systems of equations. Here is the process I use. (Note: I have found that students like math associated with buying a car – relevant, real life application for them.)

In my class, students would have seen a scatterplot with mileage and price for a single car. I explain that we will now compare two cars.

To review, in a do now or initiation at the start of class I would have one group generate a scatterplot for the Toyota Camry data and the other groups, Mustang (Excel sheet for all of this note: this data is old). Then they would share with each other

We would revisit the relationship shown and revisit the idea of depreciation.

I show a Camry and Mustang and ask two questions: Which car do you think costs more brand new? Which do you think depreciates faster and why?

Then I show them the scatterplot above and ask which car has higher dots at the far left? Explain what this means (Mustangs start off with a higher price). Then I ask about the dots at the far right.

The students are then asked to estimate when the cars have approximately the same value.

Then I present scatterplot below, with lines of best fit (trend lines) and they are asked the same question. We estimate the specific mileage and price and write as an ordered pair.

Finally, I explain that this is known as a system of equations and the ordered pair is the THE solution. The entire unit will focus on finding an ordered pair as a solution.

The TI-83 appeared only 6 years after Miami Vice but it and the upgrade versions are still suggested or even required in SOME* US colleges (see gallery of math syllabi below). This has implications for math classes in high schools, as seen in many teacher Facebook posts.

*In a previous iteration of this post I wrote “many” and wanted to clarify.

Teachers are faced with a dilemma, do they use Miami vice era technology because the higher institutes of learning may require it or do they avail themselves and their students of user-friendly and effective technology like Desmos, which is FREE!

I suggest using Desmos (or similar technology) to unpack topics and then assigning practice with the TI model of choice, with it used on the tests as well. This will mirror what students will likely see in college.

To make this situation even more disjointed, a commonly used math placement test for colleges does not allow either Desmos or a TI calculator.

Clockwise from top left: syllabi from CCSU (Connecticut), Gordon State, Texas A&M Commerce, THE Ohio State University, University of Kentucky, and University of Oregon.

IXL.com is a site that provides online practice for math (and other topics). It has a hidden feature that allows for very effective differentiation. This can be highly useful in a general ed math class and in settings for special education services. This includes special ed settings with students working on a wide ranges of math topics, for algebra students who missed a lot of class or enter the course with major gaps, and for the general algebra population to meet the range of needs. IXL can be used before the lesson or after, for intervention.

By way of example, assume you have a student or students working on graphing a linear function using an XY table (image below). Using a task analysis approach, this topic can be broken up into smaller parts: completing an XY table, plotting points and drawing the line, interpreting what all of this means. I will focus on the first two in this post.

IXL has math content for preschool up to precalculus. For the topic of graphing (shown above) many of the steps are covered in earlier grades. For example, plotting points is covered in 3rd grade (level E), 4th grade (level F), and 6th grade (Level H). To prepare students for the graphing linear functions, they can be provided the plotting points assignments below to review or fill in gaps.

The tables used to graph are covered starting in 2nd grade (level D) and up through 6th grade (level H). These can also be assigned to review and fill in gaps.

When it is time to teach the lesson on graphing a linear function, IXL scaffolds all of the steps. For example, the image below in the top left keeps the rule simple. The top right image below shows that the students now have an equation in lieu of a “rule.” The bottom image below shows no table. All 3 focus on only positive values for x and y before getting into negatives.

The default setting on IXL is to show the actual grade level for each problem. I did not want my high school students know they were working on 3rd grade math so I made use of a feature on IXL to hide the grade levels (below), which is why you see Level D as opposed to Grade 2.

Several special ed teachers identified solving multi-step equations as the most challenging math topic to teach in middle school math. Here is my approach to teaching multi-step equations like 3m + 4m + 1 = 15. .

First, I use a task analysis approach to break down the math topic like we cut up a hotdog for a baby in a high chair. MOST of the steps involved are prior knowledge or prerequisites skills. I present these in a Do Now (warm up, bell ringer, initiation) – see image below. This allows me to fill in the gaps and to lay the foundation for the lesson. The prerequisite skills include simplifying expressions and solving 2 step equations. I also present meaning for the equation with a relevant real life problem that is modeled by this equation. By attempting the walkathon problem without the “mathy” approach, the students will more likely understand the equation and why they add 3m and 4m.

After reviewing the Do Now I use Graspable Math, which is a free online application that allows users to enter their own expressions and equations. These can be manually simplified and solved by moving parts around. Here is a tutorial on how to do this. This allows them to manually work with the simplifying and the equation before working on the handout, in a concrete-representational-abstract approach.

This is followed by a scaffolded handout with the use of color coding. I have student work on the first step in isolation as that is the new step (the other steps are prior knowledge and were addressed in the Do Now). This avoids all the work on the other steps that can result in sensory overload and allows me to address mistakes in the new content immediately.

This handout can have the equations removed and be used as a blank template to follow. In turn this would be followed with regular solving worksheets.

There is a delineated sequence for teaching multiplication over the years, including repeated addition, set modeling, arrays, single digit etc (below). It exists to build conceptual understanding of the multiplication facts that are at some point memorized by many students. When I work with students who are a more than a year behind in the sequence for multiplication, I find that programming for these students to help them catch up sometimes involves shortcuts such as a reliance on rehearsal or resorting to use of the multiplication table in isolation. I am not against use of the table or narrowing the focus, but am promoting a more comprehensive approach.

Here is a sequence, on a Jamboard, I used for a recent student who was struggling for a long time with multiplication (explanation of each step shown below images). The student was interested in Minecraft so I used Minecraft items such as stone bricks and a wagon. I would spend as much time on each step, as necessary.

Count out the total number of stone bricks. This allows an assessment of how the student counts: by 3s or individually. If individually, I would prompt the student to count by 3s.

Add 3 + 3

Show a short video on the wagon (this adds interest and gives the students a bit of a break)

Present the bricks in 2 groups of 3, in context of 2 wagons with 3 bricks each.

Present the same problem as a multiplication problem but with the image for one of the factors in lieu of two numbers.

Use the multiplication table to skip count.

Present additional multiplication problems for independent attempts. The student completed both problems independently, without the table. For him this was a major success.

The follow up to this would be to assess his ability to do higher groups of 3s and groups of other numbers. For some students, I work on mastery of individual numbers before moving on. This builds confidence and allows for fluency in the process of skip counting out to the appropriate number. NOTE: I don’t worry about rote memorization of the facts but of fluency in the process of skip counting out the answers.

For students who are older, I sometimes recommend that the student be presented problems with visuals but then use a calculator to compute. This can develop conceptual understanding and also address the working memory and other related issues that undermine learning math facts.

As I wrote previously, shopping is dense with math tasks as are grocery stores. Here are some division situations that are sneaky challenging and require a student to know when and why to divide before even reaching for the calculator. I will use these to help illustrate the fact that life skills math is not simply counting money or using a calculator to add up prices. There is a great deal of problem solving and thinking skills that need to be developed.

For example, if a student has $60 to spend on gifts for her 3 teachers the student needs to understand that she can spend up to $20 per teacher (before even talking about taxes).

An entry point for division can involve a dividing situation the students intuitively understand, e.g., sharing food. Start with 2 friends sharing 8 Buffalo wings evenly (below).

This can lead into the 3 teachers sharing the $60 evenly (below). In turn, this can be followed by the online shopping shown above.

This approach can be used to develop an understanding of unit cost (cited in the shopping is dense post). Start with a pack of items to allow the students to see the cost for a single item before getting into unit cost by ounces, for example.

I have had success with teaching these division related concepts using sheer repetition as much of our learning is experiential learning. Using a Google Jamboard as shown in the photos allows for the repetition.

This is apparently the case when students are learning about inequalities such as x < 4 because I have seen many high school and college students struggle with this topic. The challenge is that teachers are often focused on the math symbols and steps as opposed to the math concepts. In contrast, below are Google Jamboard slides I use (you can make a copy and edit) to introduce the concept of inequalities.

First, I start with a topic of interest and possibly prior knowledge for the students (age to get a drivers license – below). I present the idea of an inequality in context before I show any symbols. In this case, students identify ages that “work”.

Then I introduce the symbol (below). In this case, I include equal to for the inequality (x > 16 vs x > 16). The students plot the same points then we discuss that there are many other ages that work. These ages are called solutions. We put a closed circle on all of the solutions. Then discuss that ages are not exactly whole numbers so we can plot points on all the decimals. Then we discuss that the solutions keep going to the right so we keep drawing dots to the right. There are so many dots we draw a “line” instead of all the dots.

Then we do the same steps for a situation in which the number listed (52 in the case below) is NOT a solution. The students put dots closer and closer to the number but cannot put a closed circle on 52 as a solution (top photo below). Then we present the symbols and talk about the number as a cutoff point that we get really close to but cannot touch. Therefore we use an open circle to show the number is NOT a solution.

This introduction can be followed by problems on a handout, ideally with context then without.

Money is intuitive for many students, even when the underlying math is not. For example, I often find that students who do not understand well the concept of Base 10 place value do understand $10 and $1 bills. With this in mind, I created a virtual scaffolded handout that builds on student intuitive understanding of the bills through the use of $10 and $1 bills to represent regrouping. Here is a video showing how I use it.

In the photo below, at the top, a $10 bill was borrowed into the ones column. The reason is that $7 needed to be paid (subtracted) but there were only five $1 bills. In the photo below, bottom, the $10 bill was converted into ten $1 bills. On the left side of the handout, the writing on the numbers shows the “mathy” way to write out the borrowing.

Once the student begins work with only the numbers, the $10s and $1s can be referenced when discussing the TENS and ONES places of the numbers. This will allow the student to make a connection between the numbers and their intuitive, concrete representation of the concept.

I used this site, Explorelearning, with a 7th grader with Aspergers who tested at a 1st grade math and reading level. We used the Photo Synthesis Lab (screen shot below) to gather experimental data on the hypothesis “what helps flowers grow?” He won at the school level and went on to district competition.

(As of April 2020 you can get free 60 day unlimited access.)