Tag Archives: CRA

Intro to Reading Scatterplots – Used Mustangs

One step in reading and analyzing scatterplots is simply identifying what the dots on the graph represent. If students do not understand the dots (including the position) how can they analyze. An approach I have used is start by having students create their own scatterplot for mileage and price of used cars they shop for on Carmax.com. This allows them experience the scatterplot from a data and context point of view.

Then I present the scatterplot of used Ford Mustangs on a Jamboard (image above) with ads for two used Mustangs along with a cutout of each car. The goal is to help the students understand the reasoning behind the position of each dot.

First, I take the cutout of the first car and “drive it” along the x-axis (top 3 photos in gallery below). This helps them understand the horizontal axis placement. Then I move the car up to the appropriate price (bottom row left). Finally, I replace the car cutout with the bigger blue dot that was placed by the ad with the car. We then discuss that a dot can be used to represent that car and the location on the scatterplot is based on the two values in the ordered pair (which can be typed into the ( , ) in the Jamboard next to each car.

The same steps are used for the other Mustang (see it “driving” along the x-axis below).

The next step would be to identify additional points on the scatterplot. I then revisit driving the cars and show that driving the car more miles results in a lower price and driving the car less miles results in a higher price. Finally, we discuss that this is a general trend but that it is not always true for each car. I highlight a couple points where one of the cars has more miles and a higher price (below). This leads into a discussion about additional factors influencing price.

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Scientific Notation – an Introduction

In a previous post I asked readers to identify a math topic that they wanted help unpacking. Scientific Notation was cited. Here is my approach to unpacking this topic.

My first step in presenting a new topic is meaning making. For scientific notation, the underlying idea is NOTATION – “the act, process, method, or an instance of representing by a system or set of marks, signs, figures, or characters.” We can represent numbers in different ways, one of which is scientific notation. This is useful to represent very large or very small numbers (as happens in science). It is useful because in lieu of writing out a bunch digits, the power of 10 can be used as a shortcut. In the image above you see that 4.5 x 104 has two parts, the decimal and the 10s.

Before I get into these big or small numbers, I address the concept of notation because that word is in the topic. To introduce a concept, I typically start with a related topic that is relevant for students. In this case it is money. To mirror the two parts of scientific notation, I list the bills and how many of each. In the left image below, I show both parts and pair combinations that are the same value (a single $10 bill and ten $1 bills). I then show how I can convert a single $10 bill by dividing by 10 and then multiplying the number of bills by 10 (middle image). This previews the steps used in scientific notation. Then (right image) I show the same approach for dollars and cents (which previews decimals). Note: to help flesh out the dollars and cents I would first use the linked Jamboard.

The image below left keeps the concept of money, but the images are faded. The students are still working with money and how many but now with numbers only. The middle image introduces decimals, but the same steps are used (divide by 10 and multiply by 10).

Finally, the matched pairs shown in the previous handout pages (images above) are presented with an explanation of the parts of scientific notation (below left). I explain the idea of scientific notation as a special way to write numbers, list the two parts, and then I show examples by circling the ones in each pair (bottom left) that fit the criteria. Then they identify numbers that are written in scientific notation (below right).

Following this introduction lesson, I would explain the applications (linked above) and go into more detail on how to rewrite the number in scientific notation.

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Simplifying not so Simple Equation Solving

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.

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Information Processing Analogy – Big Picture

Effective instruction is effective because it addresses the key elements of how the brain processes information. I want to share an analogy to help adults (parents and educators) fully appreciate this.

Below is a model of information processing first introduced to me in a master’s course at UCONN.

Here is a summary of what is shown in the model.

  1. Our senses are bombarded by external stimuli: smells, images, sounds, textures and flavors.
  2. We have a filter that allows only some of these stimuli in. We focus on the ones that are most interesting or relevant to us.
  3. Our working memory works to make sense of the stimuli and to package it for storage. Our working memory is like a computer, if there is too much going on, working memory will buffer.
  4. The information will be stored in long term memory.
    • Some will be dropped off in some random location and our brain will forget the location (like losing our keys)
    • Some will be stored in a file cabinet in a drawer with other information just like it. This information is easier to find.

Here is the analogy. You are driving down the street, like the one shown below.

There is a lot of visual stimuli. The priority is for you to pay attention to the arrows for the lanes, the red light and the cars in front of you. You have to process your intended direction and choose the lane.

There is other stimuli that you filter out because it is not pertinent to your task: a car parked off to the right, the herbie curbies (trash bins), the little white arrows at the bottom of the photo. There is extraneous info you may allow to pass through your filter because it catches your eye: the ladder on the right or the cloud formation in the middle.

Maybe you are anxious because you are running late or had a bad experience that you are mulling over. This is using up band width in your working memory. Maybe you are a relatively new driver and simple driving tasks eat up the bandwidth as well.

For students with a disability that impacts processing or attention, the task demands described above are even more challenging. A student with ADHD has a filter that is less effective. A student with autism (a rule follower type) may not understand social settings such as a driver that will run a red light that just turned red. A student with visual processing issues may struggle with picking out the turn arrows.

Effective instruction would address these challenges proactively. Here is a video regarding learning disabilities (LD) that summarizes the need in general for teachers to be highly responsive to student needs. Here is a great video that helps makes sense of what autism in terms of how stimuli can be received by those with autism (look for the street scene). Here is a video of a researcher explaining how ADHD responds to sensory input (he gets to a scenario that effectively encapsulates ADHD).

To address these challenges:

Ironically, this is likely a lot of information for your brain to process…

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Lego Fractions

The photo below is courtesy of Robert Yu, Head of Lego Education China, as shared by Jonathan Rochelle, Director for Project Management at Google.

The use of Legos shown here is a classic (and wicked clever) example of manipulatives.

Lego fraction model

Before writing the actual fractions students can use drawings as shown below. The sequence of manipulatives, drawings then the actual “mathy” stuff constitutes a Concrete-Representational-Abstract (CRA) model. Concrete = manipulative, Representational = picture, abstract = symbolic or the “mathy” stuff.


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Place Value Representation

Here is an easy way to create and implement strategy to unpack place value for students (created by one of my former graduate students). I suggest using this after manipulatives and visual representations (drawing on paper) in a CRA sequence. It is hands on but it includes the symbolic representation (numbers). Hence is another step before jumping into the mathy stuff.

pace value representation just numbers.jpg

The focus can shift to money as well.

2017-06-07 18.06.49

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The I in Instruction can be the same I in IEP and IDEA.

I am consistently surprised by the reliance on canned items for students who struggle. There are different reasons students struggle but we know that there are secondary characteristics and factors that inhibit effective information processing that can be addressed with some Individualization.

In a math intervention graduate course I teach at the University of Saint Joseph, my graduate students are matched up with a K-12 student with special needs. The graduate student implements instructional strategies learned from our course work. Below is the work of one of my grad students. From class work and our collaboration we developed the idea of using the fish and a pond as base 10 blocks for the student my grad student was helping. He likes fish and fish will get his attention. The grad student explained that if he has 10 fish the 10 fish go into a pond. In the photo below the student modeled 16 with a TEN (pond) and 6 ONES (fish).

2018-07-26 17.13.05.jpg

Similarly, another student likes Starbursts and that student’s respective grad student created Starburst packs to represent TENS and ONES (there are actually 12 pieces in a pack so we fudged a little).  The point is that it was intuitive and relevant for the student. The student understood opening a pack to get a Starburst piece.

2018-07-26 17.41.15


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Simplifying Expressions (Combine Like Terms)

Simplifying expressions (see photo below) is one of the most challenging algebra tasks for many students receiving special education services. A major problem is that it is typically presented as symbol manipulation…addressed in very symbolic form.

combine like terms

My approach is to make math relevant and more concrete. Below is a scaffolded handout I use to help unpack the concept. In the handout I start with items the student intuitively understands, tacos and burritos or tacos and dollar bills. In the top left of this handout the student is asked how many tacos he or she has. 3 tacos eventually is written as 3T. See next photo to see how the handout is completed as NOTES for the students.

simplifying expressions tacos

As I work with the problems below I remind the student that the “T” stands for taco so “3T” stands for 3 tacos. This takes the student back to a more concrete understanding of what the symbols mean.

simplifying expressions tacos completed

To address negatives I use photos of eating a taco or burrito. “-2T” is eating 2 tacos.

So “3T – 2T” means I have 3 tacos and ate 2. I have 1 taco left… 1T. For students who may need an even more concrete representation, use actual tacos or other edible items.

simplifying expressions tacos with negatives


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Visuals Aid Memory

This research has major implications for math for students with special needs…but some of us already knew this!

brain memory

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Snow Math

2017-03-14 10.03.23

Here’s a common word problem used for linear functions and equations (y=mx+b):

There are 6 inches of snow on the ground. Snow is falling at a rate of 2 inches per hour. Write a linear equation showing total snow as a function of time (in hours). The equation would be y=2x + 6.

Often the word problems like this are presented on a sheet of paper in isolation as an attempt to make the math relevant and to develop conceptual understanding. For students who have trouble with conceptual understanding, words on paper are likely too abstract or symbolic to allow applications like the one above to be meaningful.

The real life application is useful if presented more effectively. Here’s an approach to use the same scenario but in a more relevant and meaningful presentation. The photo above shows the current amount of snow – call it 6 inches. Students can be shown the photo to allow for a discussion about accumulation and for their estimates of the amount of snow shown. The photo below shows an excerpt from a storm warning. Showing this warning and a snow fall video can allow for a discussion about rate of snow fall and the purpose for storm warnings. Combined, this approach can lead into the above word problem.

2017-03-13 21.57.29 - Edited

Once the application is presented students can be asked to compute snow levels after 1 hour, 2 hours etc. Then they can be asked to determine how long it would take for the accumulation to reach 18 inches (the prediction for the day this post was composed). After computing the answers WITHOUT the equation the students can be shown how to use the equation – the “mathy way.”

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