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Problem Solving Strategies

My math classes have been looking at different problem solving strategies, trying them out, and discovering what works best individually.  We've tried:
    Poster that Hangs in My Classroom
    1. Using Models or Manipulatives
    2. Drawing a Picture
    3. Acting it Out or Role Playing
    4. Making a Chart or Table
    5. Making a List or a Graph
    6. Looking for Patterns (All math is based on patterns.)
    7. Working Backwards
    8. Guessing and Checking
    9. Making the Problem Simpler
I believe problem solving should be the central focus of any mathematics curriculum.  It is the major reason for studying math and provides a context in which concepts and skills can be learned.  It is the major vehicle for developing higher order thinking skills.  However, there is one problem solving strategy that will not work, although many students try it. It is called staring!  That is why the non-strategy poster seen above always hangs in my classroom.


Need some problem solving activities that are enjoyable, offer variety, and increase interest? Think Tank Questions is a 14 page handout that contains 46 various questions. Most subject areas are included in the questions which are appropriate for grades 2-6.


A Go Figure Debut for an ESL Teacher Who Is New!


Today's Go Figure Debut is for someone other than a math or science teacher. This teacher works with ESL students so consequently her Teachers Pay Teachers store is called The ESL Nexus.

Susan says that she loves creating materials that help English Language Learners succeed in ESL and mainstream classes. She has taught ESL to all age groups and all proficiency levels in public school as well as in universities in Asia. She is passionate about helping ELLS develop their language in addition to critical thinking and technology skills. When she was in the classroom, she worked hard to create an atmosphere so students felt comfortable expressing ideas and opinions. With support, she knows all of her students can be successful.


Susan currently has 65 resources in her store, with a range of categories including history, science, ESL, etc. One item is an End of Year Persuasive Writing Activity for Science. It is a fun and engaging way for students to demonstrate what they learned in their Science class for the year. A writing prompt in RAFTS form (Role, Audience, Format, Topic, Strong Verb) asks students to pretend to be alien scientists and write letters about the most important scientific ideas they encountered while secretly observing Earth. This product is appropriate for both English Language Learners and native English speakers and can be used by upper elementary and middle school students.

Susan’s TPT store also contains seven free items. One is a colorful Earth Day poster that is written as an acrostic poem. The poster presents ways to care for the environment in language that ELLs as well as other students can comprehend. A blank template is included so that students can write their own acrostic poems about Earth Day (April 22nd).

Additionally, Susan has a blog called the The ESL Connection (what else?) which has recently been redesigned. She uses her blog to discuss issues and ideas about educating ESL students. Often times, she starts her blog posts with a famous quote and/or a picture of someone who is well-known. 

Can you guess who said this?  "People who read on holiday always have a better time because it's total escapism, both physically and mentally." You'll find the answer on Susan's blog; so, hop on over there. While you are there, why not become one of her followers?

I'm Pro-Tractor!

Using a protractor is supposed to make measuring angles easy, but somehow some students still get the wrong answer when they measure. Here are a few teacher tips that might help.

1)  Make sure that each student has the SAME protractor.  (To avoid having many sizes and types, I purchase a classroom set in the fall when they are on sale.)  If each student's protractor is the same, you can teach using the overhead or an Elmo, and everyone can follow along without someone raising their hand to declare that their protractor doesn't look like that!  (Since the protractor is clear it works perfectly on the overhead. No special overhead protractor is necessary.)

2) Show how the protractor represents 1/2 of a circle.  When two are placed together with the holes aligned, they actually form a circle.

3) Talk about the two scales on the protractor, how they are different, and where they are located.  It's important that the students realize that when measuring to start at zero degrees and not at the bottom of the tool.  They need to understand that the bottom is actually a ruler. 


I use a couple of word abbreviations to help my students remember which scale to use.

4)  When the base ray of an angle is pointing to the right, I tell the students to remember RB which stands for Right Below.  This means they will use the bottom scale to measure. 

5) When the base ray of an angle is pointing to the left, I tell the students to remember LT which are the beginning and ending letters of LefT. This means they will use the top scale to measure the angle.

6) Of course the protractor has to be on the correct side.  It's amazing how many students try to measure when the protractor is backwards.  All the information is in reverse!

7)  Make sure the students line up the hole with the vertex point of the angle, aligning the line on the protractor that extends from the hole, with the base ray.  Even if they choose the correct scale, if the protractor is misaligned, the answer will be wrong.

8)  Realize that the tools the students use are massed produced, and to expect students to measure to the nearest degree is impossible.  To purchase accurate tools such as engineer uses would cost more than any of us are willing to spend!

Have fun as your class measures and constructs angles.  And don't forget what protractors really do.....They always vote "yes" to donate tractors to farmers!

If you would like supplementary materials for angles, check out these two products: Angles: Hands On Activities  or  Geometry Vocabulary Crossword Puzzle.

The Dreaded Math Curse

I love books that link math and literature, and one of my favorites is Math Curse by Jon Scieszka. Published in 1995 through Viking Press, the book tells the story of a student (I’m not sure from the illustrations if it is a boy or a girl) who is cursed by the way mathematics works in everyday life. It is a tale where everything is a math problem, from tabulating teeth to calculating a bowl of corn flakes. Everything in life becomes a math problem.

First you see the math teacher, Mrs. Fibonacci, (don’t you love that name?) declare, “You know, you can think of almost everything as a math problem.” Then you watch as the student turns into a “raving math lunatic” since s/he believes “Mrs. Fibonacci has obviously put a math curse on me.”

From sunrise to sunset, the student anxiously mulls over the answers to countless calculations such as: How much time does it take to get ready and be at the bus stop? (a problem the reader can solve.). Estimate how many M Ms you would eat if you had to measure the Mississippi River using M Ms. There is even an English word problem: “If mail + box = mailbox, does lipstick – stick = lip? Does tunafish + tunafish = fournafish?” (silly, but funny.) A class treat of cupcakes becomes a study in fractions, while a trip to the store turns into a problem of money. The story continues until the student is finally free of the math curse, but then again Mr. Newton, the science teacher, regrettably says, “You know, you can think of almost everything as a science experiment.”


Math Curse is full of honest to goodness math problems (and some rather unrelated bonus questions, such as "What does this inkblot look like?"). Readers can try to solve the problems and check their answers located on the back cover of the book. The problems are perfect to get students’ minds working and thinking about how math really does apply to their everyday life.

The illustrations by Lane Smith are one of a kind. They are busy and chaotic to reflect the “math zombie” this student becomes. Many resemble a cut and paste project, with some images touching or overlapping others. Mostly dark colors are used especially when the student begins to dream s/he is trapped in a blackboard room covered with never-ending math problems. (a nightmare for many) Smith’s art work makes Scieszka's words come to life and helps to paint a picture of what is going through the mind of the main character as s/he deals with the dreaded math curse.

John Scieszka does a remarkable job of breaking down the typical school day into math problems while also adding some tongue-in-cheek and light hearted humor which every mathphobic needs. The math is perhaps a little advanced for elementary students, but the problems are perfect for middle school or high school students.

Math Curse also demonstrates how a problem may seem difficult, but if you are persistent, you can find the solution to the problem. The book teaches not to fear or be anxious about math or for that matter, any other subject in school. Despite the fact the main character is completely overwhelmed by mathematics, it allows students who struggle with the identical feeling to know they are not alone. Any student who has ever been distressed over numbers, fractions, word problems and the like will certainly identify with the main character.

As a math teacher, I think this book makes math fun as well as interesting. Although I recognize math is everywhere in everyday life, I never realized just how much until I read the Math Curse and mathematically saw the day of a typical student. I believe what sets Math Curse apart from other books is that it accurately illustrates and explains how math is actually used and applied in day-to-day life. I love the story, the message, and especially the content.