# Making Middle School Students Better Problem Solvers

When am I ever going to use this?”

It’s the question every math teacher is asked, and while it may be annoying to hear, it is a good, valid question.  It’s important for students to understand the reasons behind the math they are learning and that they know how to apply it to real-world situations.  That’s why I consider problem solving to be the single most important part of my math classes.  I place a lot of emphasis on word problems in my daily classes, in my homework assignments, and on my tests.

I typically assign a workbook page to my students each night for homework.  My textbook series is pretty good about making sure each workbook page contains a couple of word problems, which is great, but there is one big flaw.  If I am teaching a lesson on adding fractions, the workbook page contains a page full of fraction addition problems and two word problems on the bottom that require students to, (you guessed it), add fractions.  To me, that isn’t problem solving.  Students know without even reading the problem that they will need to add fractions because that is what the lesson was on.  It’s good for them to see examples of how adding fractions is applied to real world situations, so I have students complete those problems, but it isn’t enough to make the students better problem solvers.

A few years ago I decided that I would have my students complete one word problem a day that wasn’t related to the day’s lesson.  One problem that would make the kids have to stop and think about how to solve it, because to me, that is how students become better problem solvers.

I wrote 180 daily word problems for my advanced 6th grade math class and put the problems in both PowerPoint and printable forms.  I either project the PowerPoint version of the word problem of the day as a do now or assign the printable version for homework, but every day my students are solving a  multi-step word problem unrelated to the day’s lesson.  Since it covers a topic they previously learned, it is also serves as a form of spiral review.  Sometimes I collect the students’ work to see how each student solved the problem and sometimes we discuss them and compare/contrast strategies.

I have my students solve the problems using a four-step plan, which I say is EESE (pronounced easy):

• Explore – read the problem & identify any important information in it
• Estimate – approximate the answer using rounding and/or common sense
• Solve – solve the problem
• Examine – see if the answer makes sense, see if it’s close to their estimate, and make sure it’s labeled

To download a FREE double-sided weekly sheet students can use to complete a Problem of the Day using the 4 step plan, click the image below.

Since I have started my problem of the day program, I have seen a huge increase in both my students’ willingness to attempt word problems and their success in solving them.

If you are interested in my 180 Daily Middle School Word Problems, you can pick them up in my TpT store.  They are typically \$12, but are on sale today and tomorrow for 28% off with code BTS15.  If you want to try them out before buying the set, you can download 10 days free!

What do you do to make your students better problem solvers?  The first 3 people to respond with their problem solving strategies (and give their email address) will get a free copy of my first set of 45 Daily Middle School Word Problems!

Christina

# Top 10 Things Every Middle School Math Teacher Should Have For Their Classroom

As it is almost time to start preparing classrooms for the coming school year, I thought I would share my top 10 list of things I couldn’t live without as a middle school math teacher.

10.  Class sets of rulers, protractors, and compasses

We don’t use these all that often but they definitely come in handy when we get to geometry, graphing, and pie charts.  I don’t ask students to supply their own because by the time we get to the units that require these tools, many of the kids have lost theirs.

9.  LARGE supply of pre-sharpened pencils

I either get packs of pre-sharpened pencils or regular packs of pencils that I sharpen over the summer.  Regardless of whatever system you have for pencils, students are going to show up for class without a pencil or with a pencil that needs to be sharpened at some point throughout the year.  It makes my life easier if I can just give them a pencil that’s ready to go that they can use for class instead of waiting for them to sharpen one.

8.  Pencil-top Erasers

Kids make mistakes all the time.  It makes sense to have erasers on hand to give them when they no longer have one on their pencil.  I LOVE these ones from oriental trading – they’re cute and there are enough to last at least a year.  (The kids love the smiley faces on them, too)!

7.  Expanding File Folder

(This is one of those things that I never knew I needed but now that I have one I don’t know how I survived without it).  You are going to have a lot of papers to grade.  My old system was to just throw all the papers I had to grade into my bag to take home.  Now I have sections in my 13 pocket file folder from Staples for all the different papers I need to grade, and I have sections for each class where I put the graded papers to give back.   I am SOOO much more organized with it.

6.  Manipulatives

My favorite go-to manipulatives are two-color counters and algebra tiles.  The two-color counters are awesome for teaching integer operations and the algebra tiles are great for simplifying algebraic expressions, adding/subtracting/multiplying/factoring polynomials.  I also LOVE my 3-d figure manipulatives.  I have foam ones (that are fun to throw at the students) and ones with removable nets that are great for teaching surface area.  I also have lots of dice, coins, and spinners for my probability units.

5.  Looseleaf and/or Scrap Paper

You can never have too much paper!  My students are always required to show all work so I go through paper like crazy.

I LOOOOVE my papermate flair grading pens.  I love all the colors, they don’t bleed through papers, and they just write nice.  I get a new pack each school year and it is always my favorite summer purchase!

3.  Fun, Nerdy, Math Decorations

I like my room to set the tone as a fun place to learn math.  I have math comic strips up around the room (Frank and Ernest have a bunch of good ones), cheesy math posters (such as “Life without geometry is pointless”), and my new addition that I am VERY excited about is an algebra alphabet set that I made to hang around my room.  It’s colorful, fun, and educational!

If you are interested, you can get a set of my Algebra Alphabet Cards at my TpT store.

Here’s a close-up of some of the cards.

2.  Graph Paper

If you are teaching pre-algebra or algebra your students will be graphing lines so you will need graph paper.  Depending on whether you use binders or notebooks, you may want different types of graph paper.  If your students use binders for their notes, you can just use regular 3-hole punch graph paper.  If you are using notebooks, then I highly recommend these awesome stick-on graphs that I discovered a couple of years ago!  Just stick them into your students’ notebooks and they have a nice, neat place to take notes on graphing!  (I don’t remember where I got these ones, but Amazon has a similar set for sale).

1.  Mini Whiteboards, Expo Markers, and “Erasers”

Every math teacher needs a good set of mini whiteboards.  Have students work out problems on them, showing their work, and then have them hold them up to show you.  Such an easy formative assessment!  They are great for review games, too.  I definitely recommend getting a set that includes a coordinate plane side, as well, so that students can use them for graphing.  I have been using these ones from EAI Education for a few years now and love them!  They are thin and lightweight and barely take up any room.  If you don’t want to invest in a good set of mini whiteboards you can always make your own.  My first year of teaching I took a piece of cardstock and a printed out coordinate plane and put them in page protectors.  I taped them shut, and had my own little makeshift whiteboards.  The nice thing about the homemade ones is that since they are in 3 hole punched page protectors, students can each keep one in their binders (if they are using binders) and always have them on hand.  I use old rags as erasers for the whiteboards, but paper towels or actual whiteboard erasers work, too.

I hope you found this list helpful.   Do you have any must-haves for your middle school math classroom that weren’t on my list?  Please share!  I will send a FREE set of my Algebra alphabet set to the first 2 people to comment (be sure to leave an email address for me to send it to).

Christina

# First Week Reflections

After one week in school (well, actually 4 days), I thought I’d share how my school year is going so far.

The first day of school was spent mainly with my homeroom.  I did the “who am I” getting to know you activity with the class that I described in this blog post.  The kids had alot of fun with that activity and were very good at guessing who wrote what!  (Most of them know each other pretty well from being in the same classes for years.)  I used the rest of my homeroom time to go over organizational and procedural stuff with my class.  I also had short 15 minute sessions with each of my math classes.  I used that time to assign seats, introduce myself, and distribute & briefly review my syllabus (which you can read more about here).

The second day of school I jumped right into teaching!  My favorite activity that I did this week was with my 7th grade math class.  I briefly reviewed decimal operations with them – I had them tell me how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide decimals and went through examples of each operation with them.  I then told them to get into groups of 3 or 4 and gave each group a set of decimal word problem task cards and had them work together to complete them.

The task cards were about Back to School shopping.  The students had to use the information on the recording sheet about the cost of various school supplies to answer the questions on the task cards.  I had them show their work on the recording sheet.  (If interested in these task cards, you can get purchase them in my TpT store for \$3).

The kids really got into the task cards!  This particular set of task cards varies greatly in difficulty level so the students found some of them pretty easy and struggled with others.  It was great for me to see how different students handled the difficult problems and the different techniques they tried to solve the problems.  It took the students two class periods to complete all of the task cards.

The reason I thought this was such a great first week activity was because it gave me insight into several different things about my students:

• their problem solving skills
• their decimal operation skills
• who their friends are (since they chose their groups)
• how they work together in a group

This is the first year that I have ever done task cards with my students during the first week, but it is something I am definitely going to add to my yearly routine!

Christina

# Assignment Checklists

Happy Labor Day!  Tomorrow is my first day back at school so I figured I would write one more summer blog post about how I am getting organized for this school year.

Today’s post is about one of those simple organizational ideas that I probably should have come up with 5 or 6 years ago but didn’t think of until now…

I typically try to wait until everyone in the class has taken a test before I grade it.  I do this because I think it helps me grade fairly.  When I grade them all at once it is much easier for me to be consistent with the amount of partial credit I award for problems.  If, for example, I grade some math tests one day and others a different day I may not remember how many points I took off of Jack’s test for not writing a negative sign so I may take off more points on Sara’s test for the same mistake.

The problem with waiting until everyone has taken a test, though, is that in the past I have been pretty dependent on students reminding me that they still need to take a test when they come back from an absence.  Sometimes I remember who hasn’t taken a test, but with so many other things to worry about I often forget.

So…this year I decided to fix this issue by making simple assignment checklists.  They are basically just a list of all of my students’ names with little check boxes next to them.  I made the checklists small (I fit 5 copies of the checklist on one sheet of paper) so that I wouldn’t waste alot of paper on them.

Assignment Checklist

My plan is to go through my stack of tests the day I administer the test and just make a check mark next to all the students who have taken the test.  I will then paperclip the checklist to the top of the pile of tests so I can look at it real quick and see who still needs to take the test.  It’s a really simple idea (that definitely should not have taken me 7 years to come up with) but I think it will really help with my organization this year!

If you want to print out checklists that you can use for your class, click the picture below to download an editable Microsoft Excel version of them.  I set it up so you can just enter your students names in the first column and they will be copied 4 other times so that you have 5 copies of the checklist per page.  Then you just need to cut apart the 5 lists and you are good to go!  Enjoy!

Wishing you all a wonderful school year (whether you are starting this week, like me, or have already gone back)!

Christina

# Studying for Math Tests

One of the comments I hear year after year from students and their parents alike is “you can’t study for math – you either know it or you don’t”.  After hearing that comment over and over again I decided a couple of years ago to address that misconception at the very beginning of the year before I have to hear it!  I like to give my students several different ideas for how they can prepare for my tests and quizzes the first week of school.  On back to school night (which is 2-3 weeks into the school year for me), I go over that same list of ideas with the parents.

My plan this year is to print out the following list on half-sheets of paper and have the students glue it into their notebooks on one of the first days of class.  Here is my list:

• Study the vocabulary words.  This can be done in many ways and you can use the same techniques you use to study vocabulary words for any subject (i.e. index cards).  It is important to keep in mind, though, that simply memorizing definitions is not enough.  I will rarely ask you to define a word on a test.  I am much more likely to ask questions that require you to use the vocabulary words to demonstrate your understanding rather than your memorization.
• Reread your notes.  Look over the example problems from both your notes and the textbook to refresh your memory on how to solve the problems.  Then “teach” your parents or friends how to do a particular type of problem by describing the process or steps to take to solve it.  If you are able to successfully explain how to solve a problem to someone else, then you must have a good understanding of that topic!

I always reinforce the idea that these are just suggestions and that there are other ways to study math, as well, but I try to emphasize that no matter what other techniques they use they really do need to try problems.  (I also kind of “force” them to try problems by assigning a practice test for homework two nights before a test because I know that no matter how many times I say it there will always be students who choose not to study!)

How do you get your students to study/prepare for your tests and quizzes?

# Making Expectations Clear from the Very Beginning

As pretty much any teacher would say, it can’t be stressed enough just how important it is to set clear expectations for your students from the first day of school.  This includes expectations for behavior and routines in the classroom, as well as academic expectations.

Over the years I have revised the way that I have gone over these academic expectations with students many times.  I am pretty happy with the syllabus I handed out to my students last year and think that I will use something very similar this year since it did work out well for me.  I try to keep it relatively short (my syllabus is one page, front and back) because I figure that most students probably won’t read it if I make it too long.  You can see a copy of my syllabus below:

In my opinion the purpose of a syllabus is basically to tell your students how they can be successful in your class.  That is why I include on mine how they will be graded, what they need to bring to class, and how they can get extra help if they are struggling.

The best thing about giving students a syllabus on the first day:  not having to deal with “You didn’t tell us….” or “I didn’t know…” comments throughout the year as you can just refer students back to the syllabus where it is all clearly stated.

If you like my syllabus and want to adjust it for your own classroom, click on the image below to download a free editable copy of it:

For more first day of school ideas you can use in your math classroom, check out my “Back to School Math Activities for Middle School“!  It includes games I play with my students after going over the syllabus, as well as a good first week problem solving activity/bulletin board display.  It’s typically \$5, but grab it today (August 4th) or tomorrow while it’s on sale for 28% off with code BTS14!

If you have any ideas on how to improve my syllabus or would like to share what you include on yours, please feel free to leave me a comment!

Christina

# Keeping Track of Homework

Organization is probably the thing I struggle with most as a teacher.  My method (or lack thereof) of keeping track of homework is something that I know I need to reorganize this year.

I am happy with my homework policy as a whole, but just need to change the way I keep track of who did or did not complete it.  Here is my homework policy:

I assign homework just about every night in my math classes.  It is worth two points per night.  (I use the point system of grading).  I do not collect the homework or grade it based on correctness.  I grade it based on completion only.  If a student attempts every problem AND shows their work they get 2/2, if they complete about half of it they get 1/2, and if they did not do their homework (or did not show their work) they get 0/2.  I walk around while students work on their “do now” problems and check to see who did it…and that’s where my organization falls apart.

In my old school my math classes were VERY small (they ranged in size from 4 students to 7 students).  At that school, I just kept a list of students who were missing homework assignments.

It worked for me in that small setting because I never had more than one or two students not complete their homework on any given night so it took me less than a minute to write the date, student’s name, and missing assignment down.

When I switched schools last year my classes grew considerably…to around 20 students per class.  I learned pretty quickly that in larger classes there are more students who don’t do their homework each night so I didn’t want to take the time to fill out all the info for each student who was missing work as it would take too much time.

So…I ditched my old method and switched to sticking post-it notes in my binder:

I just wrote the date on a sticky note and the initials of all students who were missing homework that day and either 1/2 or 0/2, depending on the grade they earned.  I consulted my sticky notes when I put grades into my computer later, and then threw them out.  This method was definitely quicker than my old one but obviously had some downsides…such as: I didn’t actually write down the assignments the students were missing, just that they were missing an assignment, and the sticky notes would occasionally fall out of my binder.  Bottom line is that it didn’t keep me organized at all.

Soo…this year I am opting to go with the more traditional homework record sheet.  I made one up in Excel. (You can click on the picture below to download the excel file if you are interested)! Click here if you prefer a pdf version of the record sheet.

I will type in my students’ names once I get my class lists, and across the top I’ll fill in the date and homework assignment each day.  The key is going to be remembering to keep on top of this.  My plan is to fill in the assignment part when I assign the homework the day before so that I don’t need to take too much time to fill out the info when I am checking homework the next day.

I am hoping that it will look like this as I fill it in throughout the year and that I will stay nice and organized (at least as far as homework is concerned this year)!

What method have you used that works well for keeping track of missing homework?

Christina

# Back to School Icebreaker Idea for Middle School

Each summer I like to take time to reflect on the past school year…what went well and what I would like to change for the coming school year.  I decided that this year I will share these reflections on my blog, so each of my next several posts will include ideas for the upcoming school year.

Today’s post is about the first day/week of school.  I am going to share an icebreaker that I did last year, which worked out really well for me.  In my small Catholic school, most of the students know each other really well as many of them have been in the same class since preschool or kindergarten.  Because of this, most traditional getting-to-know you icebreakers don’t really work for me in my classroom.  The problem is, though, that even though the students know each other really well, I don’t know my homeroom students well at all coming in to the new school year, so I had to come up with a way to get to them a little without boring them since they already know each other.

So….I designed this worksheet.

I had the students fill in the top half (which is all about them) when they first came in to keep them quiet and busy as I collected supplies and took care of homeroom “stuff”.  I had them write down their guesses for the questions on the bottom of it (all about me) to see what they already knew (or thought they knew) about me.

When they were finished (after about 15 minutes or so), I had them cut the bottom section off and hand in the top half to me.  I then went over the questions about me.  Just about every student wanted to guess the answers to each of the questions, so I called on a bunch of kids to share what they thought the answer was and then I told them the answers.  It was sort of like a show-and-tell time for me as I showed them a picture of my dog and my family when we got to those questions.  They got really into it and seemed to really enjoy getting to know a little bit about me.

As much as they enjoyed learning about me, their favorite part was what I did with the top half of their papers that they handed in to me…

For the whole first week of school, any time we had a few spare minutes, I would pull out those papers and we played “Who am I?”.  I would read about 3-4 of the answers someone wrote down and the kids in the class would have to guess who it was.  For example I might look at someone’s sheet and say “I had a great time in Disney World this summer.  I love the color yellow and hate eating broccoli.  Who am I?”  I would then call on students to guess whose paper I read.  If after 3 guesses no one got it correct, I would read another fact or two from their sheet, and call on other students to guess who it was.

The kids got so into this game and begged to play every day!  It was a great way for me to learn a little bit about my students and it was fun to see how well they really knew each other.  I am definitely planning to do this activity with my homeroom again this year since it was such a hit.  If you would like to use this activity with your class, just click on the worksheet above to download it.

Christina

# How Parents Can Help their Middle School Children Succeed in Math

I was at a meeting today where we were discussing some of the challenges that we face as math educators and things that we can do to help boost student achievement.  One of the things that was brought up at the meeting was parental involvement in children’s learning of math.  Many of our students’ parents did not learn to do things the same way that we are teaching their children to do them.  Many do not remember the math they learned in 6th-8th grade.  Many struggled with math when they were growing up and therefore do not feel confident helping their children with it.  For all of those reasons (and more), a large number of parents do not know how to help their child be successful in math.

In reflecting on this, I came up with the following list of some of the ways in which I think that parents can help their child succeed in middle school math: