Making Math Relevant (and perhaps fun, too)

Algebra Club? That will never work.

Or so I was told by a few people when I suggested the idea a few years ago. I envisioned a club, not a class, for homeschooled students; a supplement to studying algebra rather than a main source for learning algebra. We wouldn’t have a textbook, homework to grade, nor any quizzes and tests. Instead I envisioned this as a way to make algebra more fun by adding a social element to it, some bits of history trivia and stories, some hands-on activities, manipulatives and games that would work better with a group of children than with just my two teens alone. These were the parts of teaching math that I loved when I was a classroom teacher, but we rarely had time in the curriculum for these as testing became more and more the emphasis of public schools.

I was told that the name alone would scare people off, but I advertised it and opened it up to anyone who was working on at least middle school math. (I thought that those who weren’t actually studying algebra yet could enjoy the club and get a lot out of it as long as they were almost ready, academically, to study algebra.) I charged $5 per child for the school year to help cover the costs of photocopies and other materials I’d put into it, but most of the expensive materials–such as Algebra Tiles, an Algebra Balance, and various books and resources–that I used were ones I already owned. We meet twice a month for about an hour and a half each time.

A lot of kids came to the first meeting. Some never returned, but we ended up with a nice number, about a dozen students, who stuck with it all year and even returned the following year when I ran a somewhat similar club that I called “Geometry Club.”

While we had no graded homework, I did hand out photocopied pages from an out-of-print reproducible source called “Algebra with Pizzazz” that included lots of practice problems whose answers helped solve very lame riddles. They were fun and if they completed a page successfully, I put a sticker on the page. (If they didn’t do them, nothing happened. At least nothing happened in our club, though I can’t guarantee that their parents didn’t get upset about it sometimes.) If they finished several of them successfully, I handed out small prizes such as fun erasers, colorful little rulers with designs in them, etc.

We played bingo to practice working with integers. I used a toy car and a ruler to demonstrate how the slope of a line could be negative, positive, zero, or impossible. I read stories about famous mathematicians or famous math problems. I used brain teasers and group problems to get them to play with math ideas. We acted out some word problems to help students really understand them. We worked through a variety of SAT (the college entrance exam) math problems and learned a few tricks for dealing with them, and they learned to use some of the more advanced features of scientific calculators. We used games such as 24 (The Algebra version), Equations, and a math game that resembled Trivial Pursuit.

We met in the clubhouse of the neighborhood of one of the participating kids. This was great as the place had several tables and chairs available and they charged no rent. There was even a playground outside the clubhouse where younger siblings could play during the club (and the older ones often ran off a bit of steam right after the club meeting, too). The Clubhouse was air-conditioned and heated, came with plenty of parking, and was mostly empty during school days so it worked well for us.

When we moved on to Geometry Club, we used models of geometric solids to explore shapes and their properties. We measured the heights of trees and flag poles indirectly. We played with Tangoes (tangrams), cut shapes from paper to explore their properties, made mobius strips and Platonic solids, etc. while we continued working on SAT problems, brain teasers, and group problem-solving.

I’m convinced that getting a solid grasp of math facts is important in math, but teaching kids to enjoy math, learn to play with math concepts, and find ways to explore math problems with other people are all important ways to create good mathematicians.

Perhaps you don’t have an Algebra Club or other math club near you, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t make an effort to supplement the curriculum occasionally. Take an occasional word problem and go act it out–preferably outside or with objects that will make the situation seem more realistic. Find some fun ways to teach lessons–for example, there are lots of ideas online for using Lego bricks to teach math concepts. Find some fun puzzles to do using math–there are magazines that specialize in math puzzles–or get a board game or two that will put some math into practice in a format that’s more fun. Let the kids see you working on projects that involve math–whether balancing a checkbook, multiplying a recipe, or trying to determine how much paint to buy to paint the entire house, or some other such, these can really make math seem less of a drudge and more of a useful tool that kids will want to know.







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