“I have a certain amount of nickels and dimes that add up to $2.10.”

“Sam bought a number of tacos and burritos. The tacos were $2 and the burritos were $3. Sam spent $24.”

“Janice joined a gym with a sign-up fee of $40 and a monthly rate of $25.”

I put these three statements on the board and told my Algebra II students to generate a table of values and graph the values.

Some students were instantly able to use their “real-life” math knowledge to start working. Others needed a push and were then able to start. Some needed calculators to work out the values, but all 90 students were, with minimal prompting, able to use that part of their brain that had nothing to do with school to create a list of possibilities. Only a few questioned the lack of an “answer”, and none needed the explanation more than once.

We did this for three days. Over half my students were able to determine the slope of the line and link it back to the word problem without my expressly teaching it. Some of them improved as time went on; few of them are completely incapable of linking the word model to an equation. With discussion, most students began to realize that models with two changing numbers adding up to a constant (nickels and dimes, tacos and burritos) had a negative slope, because an increase in one led to a decrease in the other.

Then, for two days, I gave them problems in equation form:

“y = 3x+2”

“2x + 5y = 45”

“3x – 2y = 6”

“y = -.5 + 50”

They had to generate a table of values and graph the line. When some of them had difficulties, I pointed out the links to word models (what if you were buying burritos for $2 and 6-packs for $5–how much money did you have to spend?) and they got it right away. The subtraction models were the most difficult (which I expected, and didn’t emphasize).

And then, for a couple days, I mixed it up–gave them word models and equations.

I began writing the answer to the most common question in huge letters on the white board: YES, YOU CAN JUST PICK ANY NUMBER.

We’ve just spent two days doing the same thing with word models that provide two points but no relationship.

“Janice joined a gym that had a monthly rate and a signup fee. After three months, she’d paid $145. After 6 months, she paid $190.”

“Brad buys grain for his livestock on a regular cycle and re-orders it when he runs out. After 3 days, he had 72 pounds left. After 7 days, he had 24 pounds left.”

So they have to create the table, find the slope from the table and graph it. Day 2, they had to do that while also answering questions (“What was the signup fee? What was the monthly rate? How much grain did Brad use daily? When would he have to reorder?)

At no point during these two weeks did I work problems algebraically. Some students did, but in all cases I encouraged them to think about other ways to work the data.

They improved dramatically. I gave them a quiz, and all but a few students were able to do the problems with a minimum of questions, although they needed lots of reassurance. “Okay, I think I know what’s going on, so there must be something wrong.” A few kids gave me the “I have no idea how do to this” and I was pretty brutal in my lack of sympathy because they were the kids who don’t pay attention.

I spent the entire first semester teaching them linear and quadratic equations–graphing, systems, solving, factoring, the works. Algebra II is a course designed for students who don’t want or aren’t ready to move to Algebra II/Trigonometry–or who failed that and need a third year. So the first semester is a rehash of Algebra I. I covered it, they all learned a lot–and yet, the semester final was dismal. Some of it was Christmas crazy, and then I wasn’t happy with the test. But nonetheless, they should have done better.

So I mulled this over Christmas break. All but a few of my students are juniors or seniors. Some will be taking a proficiency exam in a few months. Others will be taking a proxy for the exam in their state tests. I’ve always been more focused on their college tests than their knowledge of second year algebra. I want my students to test out of remedial math, or spend as little time as possible in it.

That’s why I’ve decided to spend a month helping them use their math knowledge–the knowledge they see as entirely separate from algebra and geometry, their “real-life” knowledge–to model data.

If this works properly, the strongest students will have a much deeper understanding of the equations and how they relate to the data. The weaker students will be able to work problems using their inherent math ability, rather than struggling to turn the problem into an abstract representation they don’t recognize.

I’m going to finish up linear equations with maps, to give them a better understanding of midpoint, distance, parallel and perpendicular.

For more samples and boardwork, see Modeling Linear Equations, part 3

Then it’s onto quadratics.

May 21st, 2012 at 9:11 am

[…] you teach them how to model equations quickly, which works a charm and gives them all sorts of new skills. You see them become much more […]

July 11th, 2012 at 10:26 am

[…] and generating tables. I’ve been slowly realizing this over time, and it crystallized into my data modelling unit in my Algebra II class. This activity, which I drummed up for an interview (but will undoubtedly […]

July 16th, 2012 at 2:43 pm

[…] pushing students forward in math when they haven’t mastered the previous class. For example, my algebra II classes, in which 90% of the students got below basic or worse in Algebra […]

October 27th, 2012 at 9:30 pm

[…] teaching pieces that are regularly linked to or used as references by teachers: Modeling Linear Equations, Teaching Algebra, or Banging Your Head with a Whiteboard, and Teaching […]

November 10th, 2012 at 1:28 pm

[…] want to go back. Oh, sure, I’d like to teach one class of Algebra I, particularly to see if my data modeling lessons they work as well in algebra I as algebra II. But I do not want to be an “algebra I […]

January 2nd, 2013 at 2:36 am

[…] post that gets a lot of attention, relative to what I expected, is Modeling Linear Equations. Google “linear equations modeling” and it comes up on the first page, and is 13th […]

January 27th, 2013 at 12:20 am

[…] because I spent quite a bit of time teaching them first year algebra. In Algebra II, I did it with data modeling, which was a much more sophisticated approach than what they’d had before, but it was still […]

February 16th, 2013 at 9:40 pm

[…] Part I and Part […]

May 5th, 2013 at 1:43 am

[…] Which was a big step up compared to what they retained of linear equations. But then, last year, I cracked linear equations in a big way, which is great except now I just feel bad about quadratics, because […]

May 6th, 2013 at 1:26 am

[…] Modeling Linear Equations […]

September 15th, 2013 at 10:02 pm

[…] Modeling Linear Equations […]

January 4th, 2014 at 5:40 pm

I stumbled on this lesson when I was actually looking to see how you teach “Systems” of equations and inequalities. Still, I thought, “This is how I should teach the students the meaning and purpose of linear equations in two variables.” It best explains the two variable equation, which traditional ways of teaching doesn’t. The “modeling” you started with achieves this. A few months ago when I was introducing this lesson, I made a mental note to myself to do it differently in the future, but I should have known one could begin this way.

Congratulations.

But, when you wrote in all caps, YES, YOU CAN PICK ANY NUMBER, I thought to myself, “Why not use this as an opportunity to help students also understand how the domain can sometimes be all real numbers, but sometimes it cannot be all real numbers. Kids have a tough time with the idea of a discrete function. Heck, my high school teacher never pointed it out.

In other words, can you have 2.5 tacos?

Thanks for another great idea.

May 20th, 2016 at 3:20 pm

These kids are having a hard time just getting the first part. Enriching the exercise would make thinks worse, not better. Let them get one thing before moving to a tougher situation. Progression, progression, progression. Slower, slower.

February 17th, 2015 at 12:43 am

[…] the same time I began an experiment that utterly transformed my teaching. I speak, of course, of Modeling Linear Equations, which I’m amazed to realize I wrote just one week after the “How I Teach” post. […]

November 1st, 2015 at 9:04 am

[…] that students didn’t remember in the slightest, I decided to start over, beginning with modeling linear equations. Not only did I completely change my approach to curriculum, I also flatly punted on coverage from […]