What Makes Math Fun?
"Math is boring."
"I wish math were more fun."
Do you ever hear comments like this from students?
Did you feel this way as a student?
Do students walk out of your math class saying, "That was a fun class?"
What Makes Math Fun?
Can middle school math class be fun?
Is math supposed to be fun?
These are good questions, but my real question is - what makes math fun? Are we talking about having fun practicing math or having fun learning math? Or both?
I'd argue that practicing math can't be much fun if a student doesn't understand the concepts. You can have the most exciting, engaging activity, but for the students who don't know how to solve the math problems, the activity is NOT fun; it's meaningless and frustrating...especially if they see other students having fun because they 'get it.'
Before practicing math can be fun, students need to understand the concepts.....at least partially! Maybe a fun math activity can help solidify the concepts, but there must be some understanding to begin with.
What Makes Learning Math Fun?
So, how do we make learning math fun in middle school (or upper elementary)? I've developed a few theories and fun math teaching practices over the years:
1) The math class environment needs to be non-threatening. You can be a super-nice teacher and still have a threatening atmosphere in the classroom. What makes math threatening?
2) Students need to feel they can ask questions and that the questions will be answered. For most of my teaching career, I was guilty of being 'behind' in the curriculum. That's mostly due to the fact that I'd get off-track during our math lessons. If students asked questions that showed they really needed more explanation, or asked questions that took us on a math tangent, I usually answered them...or I asked other students to answer....we discussed...and much of the time, the class learned something new or gained deeper understandings of math concepts beyond the initial question.
If students think the answer to their question will be, "We'll cover that later," or, "You and I can discuss that later," they won't keep asking. Math class needs to be a place where students feel curious and feel confident expressing that curiosity.
3) Let students be the 'teachers.' One way I'd do this is to have willing students teach me how to complete a process, in front of the class. The idea was that they needed to treat me like I knew nothing about the process, and they had to walk me through a problem, step by step. They also needed to answer my 'why' if I questioned a step.
The students always got a kick out of the mistakes I'd make if they didn't give clear enough instructions; these sessions always included some laughter (and good-natured exasperation from them when I just didn't 'get it'), and inevitably helped those students who were having trouble with that math concept. They also helped the 'teachers' to communicate math more clearly.
4) Help students get comfortable with 'why.'
"Why?" was often my response, whether students had a right or wrong answer. 'Why' helps us all in the math classroom. It helps me understand if they got the right answer for the right reason; the right answer for the wrong reason; the wrong answer, but correct thinking (with a little mistake); or the wrong answer and wrong thinking. It helps students to understand the same. And the more I asked why, the more THEY eventually asked why.
5) Learning math is fun when students discover math concepts on their own. It's fun when they get time to explore math concepts. Exploring does take time, but it's worth the time - exploring tends to lead to deeper understanding, often in more areas than just the math concept they were exploring.
6) Learning math is fun when students get to discuss their math thinking. Yes, some will do more listening than talking, but when math discussion is the norm, more students will open up and share.
7) Learning math is fun when students get to problem-solve. They expand their creative math thinking!
8) Learning math is fun when instruction is engaging - when you add some personality to the lessons; or maybe add some doodling and color to note-taking. with Doodle Notes or Math Wheels.
Fun Math Activities for Practicing Concepts
THEN, after students understand the math concepts, then practice can be fun!
Fun ways to practice math? There are so many! You can find all of these types on TPT, from so many teacher-authors, or on Pinterest, or just by searching the internet:-)
Color by numbers
Digital games and activities
Active math games like trashketball
What are some ways you make learning and practicing math fun?
To Read Next
Note-Taking in Upper Elementary and Middle School Classes
How much do your math and ELA students love taking notes?!
What's your favorite method for taking notes with your upper elementary or middle school students?
Maybe your favorite math method is different from your favorite ELA method. Maybe they're similar:-)
I used to use fold it ups (or foldables) quite often in both math and language arts. However, my middle school classes were always 40ish minutes long and often, no matter how prepared I was, creating the fold it up just ate up too much of the class time.
Using Fold It Ups
Sometimes there wasn't enough time to add the notes before math or language arts classes was over.
And the fold it ups were kind of hard to keep organized. We tried using folders and envelopes, and in my last years of using them, I tried using a bound book of fold it ups. I took all my math fold it ups and organized them in the order we'd use them during the school year, added some blank pages in between them, and had them bound as a book for each math student. Then all the fold it ups stayed in the book. Some remained attached on their original page because they were never totally cut out; some were glued or taped onto the blank pages. This method of organizing the notes was the one that worked best for my math students.
I never did that with ELA...because I stopped teaching that class before I had this idea, lol.
But then, I started making math wheels....
Math Wheels for Taking Notes
My new favorite note-taking method for middle school math (and ELA if I still taught it) became the wheel graphic organizers - Math Wheels and ELA Wheels. I love these note-taking wheels for so many reasons!
Benefits of Using Math or ELA Wheels for Taking Notes
1) All the notes on these graphic organizers are on one surface/one side of a page (no folding or unfolding to add info...and then again to find the info:-).
2) The notes are engaging!
3) The wheels have a patterned background that typically includes some practice problems, so students have their notes and practice examples all on one page - this is super helpful when they need a refresher later in the year.....they can look at the notes and the problems they solved.
4) It's SO easy to store these graphic organizers! Math and ELA wheels can easily be stored in a folder or envelope. Or, they can be hole-punched and kept conveniently in a binder. If you use a type of interactive notebook, they can be added to that. And then students can reference these notes ALL YEAR!
5) Students get to color the background, so they get that little added coloring benefit as part of their day:-) They may choose to color in a way that helps them remember or focus on a particular aspect of the content. This is another opportunity to be creative in math class, while using color and coloring to help them learn.
Have you tried math or ELA wheels? If not, I hope you will! There are several free ones here on the blog:
Problem Solving Wheels
Rounding Decimals Wheel
Fraction, Decimal, Percent Wheel
Percent of Number Wheel
You can access all my Math and ELA Wheels on TPT:
To Read Next:
Two Types of Digital Coloring Activities
Remote Learning Activities
There are so many distance learning activities available for your upper elementary and middle school math classes right now!
What will work best for your math students (or for your ELA students, or science students, etc, if you also teach other classes)?
What do your students like? But just as importantly, if not more importantly, what provides great practice of the math (or other) skills during this time of virtual learning?
Since I'm such a lover of color by number activities, I want to discuss two styles of digital color by number: the 'pixel art' mystery picture style and the 'fill color bucket' style.
Pros and cons of each coloring activity
Each of the items on my 'pros and cons' list could be viewed as a 'pro', depending on your point of view, or as a 'con.' So I'm not necessarily labeling them as one or the other (which would just be my opinion); I'm simply stating what the possible benefits and drawbacks could be:-)
Pixel art mystery picture:
1) Students don't have to engage in the coloring aspect of the activity - they need to solve, enter the answer, and the coloring appears.
2) Fairly quick activity, especially if a student understands the skills quite well.
3) Students may be able to find the answer in the conditional formatting, depending on how the conditional formatting was designed.
4) Self-checking: if the squares don't change color, students know they were incorrect and can enter a new answer.
5) Easy to grade: teachers can see who is on the right track as students are working, if the color is filling in.
'Fill color' bucket color by number:
1) Students engage in the coloring - students must look for the answers in the shapes and color each one (they can select more than one shape at a time if comfortable, so that can speed things up).
2) Coloring takes more time, especially if students 'play' with the colors a bit to get the shade they want. Choosing their own shades gives them a little chance to be creative.
3) Students may be able to use the answers in the pattern to help them as they're trying to solve the problems. Depending on the creator, some answers may be quite similar, making it harder for students to 'guess' the right answer.
4) Students' final patterns may look a little different from one another, depending on the shades they chose.
5) Easy to grade: teachers can quickly check the answers on the right hand side or check the coloring pattern.
Both styles of color by number are awesome! But which one is right for your students? Maybe both are good for your students, depending on the day or depending on the content. Maybe different styles are right for different students....we know how different students are:-) The only way to really know which is 'best' is to try both versions and see how it goes!
To Read Next:
Loving Prime Factorization
Is it weird that I love prime factorization??
Every year of teaching math, I have come to appreciate prime factorization more and more! Maybe it’s because when I was a student (forever ago!), I didn’t learn how to use prime factorization to find greatest common factors, least common multiples or to reduce fractions. (I will admit to the possibility that I learned and forgot….but I truly think I didn't learn it!). In addition to missing this information as a student, I didn't find it in math teacher manuals until I'd been teaching for more than 20 years.
I'll share why I love it so much by explaining three ways to use prime factorization: to find GCF, LCM, and lowest terms for fractions.
How to Find Greatest Common Factor With Prime Factorization
1) First, find the prime factorization of each number.
Using the example in the image:
Why do I like this method? I like using prime factorization to find greatest common factor because when my students use the 'listing method, they often miss factors of some numbers; and when they miss factors, I swear they always end up missing the GCF.
Using prime factorization, they DON'T miss these factors, so they're more successful in identifying the GCF.
How to Find Lowest Terms Using Prime Factorization:
In past years, when students reduced fractions, they often chose ANY factor to divide by, (unless they were forced to find the GCF). Then, they would reduce and reduce again, and sometimes they still didn't reach lowest terms.
For example, some students would take 54/72 and divide by 2 to get 27/36. Then they might divide by 3 to reach 9/12. Some might stop here and never reach 3/4 as the lowest terms.
To find lowest terms using prime factorization:
1) First, find the prime factorization of each number.
2) Next, cross out the factors that are in common.
How to find Least Common Multiple with Prime Factorization
Using prime factorization to find the least common multiple is fantastic! Listing multiples can be pretty tedious (though it does reinforce multiplication facts), and although finding the prime factorization might be difficult for students to begin with, it will eventually be quicker than listing multiples.
Once I started talked about prime factorization a lot in math class, and thought about it aloud so the students could hear my thought process in breaking down numbers, my students started to find prime factorizations much more quickly than students in the past.
To find LCM with prime factorization:
1) First, find the prime factorization of each number.
2) Next, identify the different factors of each number.
A 2nd Example: Find the LCM of 6, 7, and 14
1) Find the prime factorization of each number.
The factors 2, 3, and 7 occur once at most, so they are each multiplied once to find the LCM of 42.
Other Prime Factorization Benefits
Besides helping students to find GCF and LCM and reduce fractions more quickly, I love the fact that using prime factorization for these concepts helps students develop a better understanding of relationships between numbers....I see and hear this awareness developing.
Here's a great benefit - students like it! While some students are comfortable with ways they've learned in previous years and are hesitant to use prime factorization, other students have actually come to me during our study period to double check how to use prime factorization in these ways, because they LIKE it and think it's cool!
I've created a note sheet for my students to keep in their notebooks so they can refer to it throughout the year. Feel free to download and use it!
Use the Ladder Method to Find Prime Factorizations
Of course, I also love how the ladder method can be used to find prime factorizations, as well as GCF, LCM, and lowest terms fractions. You can read about that in this post!
I hope you enjoy prime factorization! Are there any other ways you use prime factorization with your students?
Other Resources for GCF, LCM, and Prime Factorization Instruction and Practice
If you're looking for other resources to help your students practice with GCF, LCM or prime factorization, I have several in my TeachersPayTeachers shop - some print and some digital:
To Read Next:
Six jobs to Help you Supplement or Replace Your Teaching Income
Do you love your teaching job, but need extra cash? Maybe something to do on the side or during the summer?
Do you love teaching, but your circumstances require you to find an alternate career?
Or, are you hoping to leave the classroom, because teaching isn't what you thought it would be and you want a change, but aren't sure where to start?
I've been where you may be! I loved teaching and taught elementary and middle school for 24 years, but throughout those years, there were times that I wanted to be home with my own children, and that made me want to leave the classroom. And sometimes we needed extra money. AND I wanted to work for myself! So, from as long ago as my second year of teaching, I was always seeking other ways to earn money - especially ways that would let me work from home.
I tried several ways to earn extra money over the years, and I'll share the most successful of those here (yes, there were some unsuccessful ones too:-).
The jobs I share here are the ones that allowed me to make enough money to replace my teaching income and leave the classroom.
1) Be a curriculum writer
This is the first teaching-related job I took that seriously started me on the path to leaving the classroom. While I was still teaching, I became a math curriculum writer for an online education company. They hired me to write lessons for upper elementary and middle school math, and I was able to do this work from home.
I wrote the content for the lessons; designed the activities that a developer would turn into online, interactive activities; wrote practice problems; and wrote assessments. I worked for this company for several years. After a couple years, the company was bought out, and I continued to working for the new company. Then the manager I worked with left the new company and began her own online learning company (Accelerate Education). I continued to do the same type of work with them for several years. I worked in math, but curriculum writers were hired for all content areas.
There were a lot of late nights during these years, but it was definitely worth it - it was a great experience that taught me a lot.
2) Teach online
I did just a little of this with Accelerate, back when the company was new, while I was writing math curriculum. I have to admit teaching online wasn't my favorite, and it wasn't as lucrative as writing, but it was a little extra cash and, again, I was able to do it from home:-) You may find that you really enjoy teaching online!
3) Write for elearning companies
This type of writing doesn't have to be K-12 education-based. There are elearning companies creating courses for people/businesses in ALL areas!
After my curriculum writing (and while I was still teaching), I started writing storyboards for an elearning company where a friend was a project manager (she's a former teacher, as were four or five other employees in this company). As teachers, we know how to set objectives for learning and how to organize and teach information. Writing storyboards for a course that teaches something falls right into our wheelhouse.
As a writer, you're given the content the company needs to teach, and your job is to turn their information into an engaging learning experience. In your storyboard writing, you include presentation of information, activities to practice the information, and questions to assess the information. And this can be done as creatively (or not) as the company wishes it to be!
(This job was a remote one too!)
4) Be a proofreader or copyeditor
In addition to writing for elearning, I've spent a bit of time copyediting storyboards others have written. As a teacher, proofreading and editing may be a real area of strength for you. You can find many proofreading and editing jobs listed on sites like Upwork and Fiverr.
I've been working in the elearning industry for six or seven years now (still am), and there are many tasks that teachers can do. You may even be interested in being a course developer! (I've done some of that too - it's how I learned to make the digital activities on my site:-)
(It was actually the work in elearning that gave me the security to leave the classroom. When I left the classroom, I took a job working in elearning 20-30 hours/week and worked on creating teaching resources about 15-20 hours/week.)
5) Become a Teacher-Author
If you love creating your teaching resources and want to share them with teachers and students around the world, you can become a teacher-author on TeachersPayTeachers! There is so much guidance out there to help you get started:-) I started on TPT when I was still in the classroom and working at some of these other side gigs.
Writing curriculum, working in elearning, and being a TPT teacher-author have all complemented each other. I've learned so much in each area that I was able to apply in the others.
6) Be a Virtual Assistant
MANY Teacher-Authors hire virtual assistants to help with the numerous tasks they need to get done. And outside the TPT world, there are a plethora of businesses looking for assistance. As teachers, we amass a wealth of knowledge and abilities - in content areas, technology, planning, data analysis, time management, organization...the list goes on and on.....we know how to do so much!
If you know teacher-authors, you can get in touch with them to learn more about Virtual Assistant work, and Virtual Assistant jobs can also be found on Upwork and Fiverr.
This is the one job on the list that I haven't done, but I know it's a great job. You can take on as much work as you want and build your business at your own pace.
I hope these suggestions are helpful! There are many more possible avenues of income, but I wanted to share the ones I've tried and had success with. Even if these suggestions aren't quite right for you, I hope they can jump start some brainstorming of additional job ideas to help you reach your goals.
When I started my math curriculum writing adventure, I never thought it would lead me into the elearning and TPT worlds! It's been so exciting to keep learning new things, meeting new people, and experiencing new roles. I can't wait to see what comes next!
To read next:
Emergency sub plans! Do you have them?
Will you need them?
This fall especially (2020), you may need to have those emergency sub plans ready. Perhaps your school district is requiring you to have a week, or even two weeks, of plans. Or perhaps you just want to be extra-prepared. What's the best way to approach emergency sub plans in middle school math?
If you're like me, you don't want your absence to cause your math students to 'get behind' in the curriculum...you don't want things to be put on hold or to stop in the middle of a unit. But, you don't always know who will be taking over your math class....will it be a math teacher or someone who has never taught math and isn't comfortable with math?
If you must have the plans set at the beginning of the year, you can't really include the specific content you'll be teaching when those plans are needed.
So what's the best approach for sub plans?
First off - if you do have to be out and there's a test (or some other really critical item) scheduled for your first or second day of absence, I'd keep that on the schedule. Do whatever you can to be sure students get to take the test as scheduled. Make sure you're prepped for the test a day or two before....copies made or links prepared, so no one has to scramble to take care of it that morning (or has to postpone it). After the test, your sub can move on to the emergency plans. (I only mention this because I was guilty of last-minute 'morning of' prepping too often. Eventually, I started prepping my classroom for the next day before I left in the afternoon....writing the agenda on the board, being sure all copies were done, etc.)
OK, on to some ideas...
Problem solving is always an area that students can practice!
I typically include problem solving sheets requiring students to show all their math work AND do some writing, to explain how they arrived at their answers.
Some problem solving suggestions include:
Color by Number Activities
These are my favorite:-) Once I started creating these, they were always part of my sub plans! If I was out for just a day, I'd include one for the math topic we were covering. However, in the emergency plans, I included 'mixed practice' color by numbers.
Members of my email community receive a free color by number every month, so you might have several of these saved or still waiting in your inbox!
I also loved including Faceing Math activities. These incorporate drawing as well as coloring...so much fun and so creative! My own children brought these home as homework and got me hooked on them:-)
Many students love number puzzles, and depending on the type, they can be excellent to help students problem solve, work on math fluency, develop persistence, and look for patterns.
If you have time, creating review lessons focused on areas of student need could be very beneficial. At the beginning of the year, you might do a pre-assessment of math skills needed for your grade level. Review lessons would then focus on those skills students seemed to have the most difficulty with. In 6th grade, students have always needed extra fraction and decimal practice, so I'd include those in review lessons.
If this is a possibility, I'd recommend having students work on whatever program your school may use...students can complete a lesson every day or two that you're out. Fluency lessons and review lessons are great options.
If your district doesn't have a particular program, Kahn Academy is always great!
There are also several free activities on my math activity site.
Do Your Plans Need to be Computer-Based?
If you're currently virtual, your sub plans may need to be more computer-based. If it's possible for students to print some of the math activities and interact on paper, I think that would be great. However, students can still complete many of these suggested math sub plan activities on the computer.
Do you have any other sub plan ideas to share? Feel free to add suggestions in the comments!
To Read Next:
Do you teach divisibility rules in your math class?
I've always enjoyed teaching divisibility rules and my 6th grade math students have always seemed to have fun using them!
I've read different opinions about whether or not teaching divisibility rules should be a focus in math class, because they may be viewed as 'tricks.'
However, I think understanding and using them in middle school helps students develop number sense and number fluency.
Rather than being taught as a 'unit,' I think divisibility rules should be introduced and then referred to again and again in any applicable situation throughout the year. To make the continuous revisiting easier for students, I've always liked to have a resource for them to refer to throughout the year. We used to create fold-it-ups, but then I moved to using a Doodle Notes resource or a Math Wheel.
Any reference sheet is helpful so that when you ask a divisibility question, students can grab it (or look at it on a wall) to quickly refresh their memories, if needed.
Where can students apply divisibility rules?
There are several math concepts where students can apply the divisibility rules:
1) Working with division facts that are beyond the 'basics.' Like 51 divided by 3, for example. Students so often believe 51 is prime, but if they take a second to test the rule for 3, they can quickly see that 51 is in fact a composite number.
2) Prime factorization. When determining the prime factorization of a number like 51, 57 or 87, using the divisibility rules can be very helpful!
3) GCF. To find GCF, students need to determine what each number can be divided by, so the divisibility rules are quite helpful here.
4) FACTORING. If you teach divisibility rules in elementary school, you might not be thinking of this eventual application. However, the more frequently math students work with divisibility rules, the more their number fluency improves, and the easier factoring will be for them.
Finding the sum for checking 3 and 9 sometimes led some students to start adding the digits to check for every number. I found the use of visuals with the Doodle Notes or the Math Wheel reduced this tendency, as compared to when we used the fold-it ups.
What's your favorite way to teach (or use) divisibility rules?
To Read Next
Hey there! I'm Ellie - here to share math fun, best practices, and engaging, challenging, easy-prep activities ideas!