Gift Card Balance Activity

Shopping is surprisingly more complex that we realize for many students who are working on life skills math. Staying within a spending limit is one issue. The concept of a running balance is another. In this post, I detail an activity in which a gift card in real life and ones in simulations are used in shopping activities. The purpose is to engage students with spending limits and balances.

Real Life Activity

I provided a student with a $10 gift card to buy a hot chocolate at Barnes and Noble. This experience allowed the student to order, pay, and monitor the balance. At some point the card will not have a balance to cover another drink. Not only does this provide real life experience, it provides an anchor for other instructional activities.

The student identified the price, the tax, the total, and the balance. Then he computed the balance to see for himself how this works.

Simulations in Instructional Settings

In our instructional setting, the student is provided an image of a gift card on a Google Slide and is prompted to buy 1 item at a time. This allows for immediate computation and tracking of a running balance.

In the image below, you can see a prompt for the student reflect on how the balance is computed by referring to the in person experience. I have the student compute on Google Calculator to allow me to record the work.

The running balance is recorded on the Google Calculator image ($18.75 below) and the next item is purchased with a new running balance computed.


I am in a position to conduct in person instruction at other settings. Obviously, most teachers do not have this opportunity. My recommendation is to collaborate with a parent to facilitate such activities. For example, if the family is going out to eat, the student can be provided a gift card and allow him or her to choose an item and pay independently. Another possibility is that the parent provides a student an e-gift card to spend during class with the teacher.

Introduction to Solving Equations

I introduce solving equations by building off of the visual presentation used to introduce equations. The two photos below show an example of handouts I use. Below these two photos I offer an explanation of how I use these handouts.

intro to solving equations

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First I develop an understanding of a balanced equation vis-a-vis an unbalance equation using the seesaw representation.intro to equations balanced vs unbalanced

I then explain that the same number of guys must be removed from both sides to keep the seesaw balanced.

intro to solving equations balance and unbalanced

I then apply the subtraction shown above to show how the box (containing an unknown number of guys) is isolated. I explain that the isolated box represents a solution and that getting the box by itself is called solving.

intro to solving equations adding

I use a scaffolded handout to flesh out the “mathy” steps. This would be followed by a regular worksheet.

solving 1 step equations add scaffolded

I extend the solving method using division when there are multiple boxes. I introduce the division by explaining how dividing a Snickers bar results in 2 equal parts. When the boxes are divided I explain both boxes have the same number of guys.intro to solving equations multiplying

The students are then provided a scaffolded handout followed by a regular worksheet.solving 1 step equations multiply scaffolded

Introduction to Equations – (Meaning Making)

This is a meaning making approach to introducing equations. I will walk through the parts shown in the photo in the space below this photo. (A revised edition of this handout will be used in a video on this topic.)

intro to equations

First I explain the difference between an expression (no =) and an equation (has =). An equation is two expressions set equal to each other (21 is an expression).

intro to equations definition equation

I then develop the idea of a balanced equation and will refer to both sides of the see saw as a prelude to both sides of the equation. I also focus on the same number of people on both sides as necessary for balance.intro to equations balanced vs unbalanced

At this point I am ready to talk about an unknown. Here is the explanation I use with the photo shown below.

  • I start with the seesaw at the top. The box has some guys in it but we don’t know how many.
  • We do notice the seesaw is balanced so both sides are equal.
  • This means there must be 2 guys in the box.
  • I follow by prompting the students to figure out how many guys are in the box(es) in the bottom two seesaws.
  • Finally, I explain that the number of guys in the box is the solution because it makes the seesaw balanced.

intro to equations definition solution

There are multiple instructional strategies in play.

  • Connection to student prior knowledge – they intuitively understand a seesaw. This lays the foundation for the parts of an equation and the concept of equality.
  • Visual representation that can be recalled while discussing the symbolic representation, e.g. x + 1 = 3
  • Meaning making which allows for more effective storage and recall of information.