Engaging students: Absolute value

In my capstone class for future secondary math teachers, I ask my students to come up with ideas for engaging their students with different topics in the secondary mathematics curriculum. In other words, the point of the assignment was not to devise a full-blown lesson plan on this topic. Instead, I asked my students to think about three different ways of getting their students interested in the topic in the first place.

I plan to share some of the best of these ideas on this blog (after asking my students’ permission, of course).

This student submission again comes from my former student Dalia Rodriguez. Her topic, from Pre-Algebra: absolute value.

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A2. How could you as a teacher create an activity or project that involves your topic?

Get a deck of cards and take the Ace cards out, as students walk through the door give them a card. The red cards will represent a negative number, the black will represent a positive number, Jacks will represent the number 11, Queen will represent the number 12, and King will represent the number 13. From the student roster call out two students at a time and ask them their number, the two students will then decide which card has the highest value, do this until all students are called. Then ask the students, “What if I told you that the red cards represented a negative number?” This will engage the student because they will feel confident about their answer until they hear that the red cards represented a negative integer. Then the student will start thinking and coming up with conceptions on how a negative number affects which integer is higher. The teacher can then ask another pair of students what their numbers are, and follow up by asking which integer is higher. The students will most likely answer incorrectly so this would be a time to ask other students what their thoughts are. All the students will be participating and thinking. The last question the teacher would ask before beginning the lesson would be, “What if I told you that the color of your card does not matter, or affect the number on the car?” Allowing all the students to participate by calling on them, at the beginning, will break at least a small barrier and open the doors for them to share their opinion. Also, asking scaffolding question to let the students start thinking about properties of absolute value will let the students remember the activity and acknowledge that even thought the number is negative or positive absolute values is the distance away from zero and it will always be positive.


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In Finding Dory, her parents laid out sea shells on the ocean floor that lead to her parents. The sea shells were spread out in lines going around the house, the distance from the beginning shell to the house is always positive, even though they are in the left side (negative side). The teacher can tell the student that each sea shell represents 1 unit, as they see the length of the sea shells lines the students will think of these lines as positive numbers, no matter what direction the sea shells are coming from.


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Students should have already learned about positive, negative integers, and distances. You can engage your student by asking them question and having a class discussion. Questions like:


“What is a positive integer?”


“What is a negative integer?”


“How do you measure distance?”


“Can distance be negative?”


These types of questions will scaffold student to get a base line idea of what absolute value is, but also allow them to remember what they already have learned. Allowing students to realize that their connections from past knowledge to new knowledge will let them better understand what they are learning. Having a class discussion on their previous knowledge will allow a teacher to see where there might be misconceptions and also see a base line where the students are at, or what they might need help at. A small review lesson from the teacher, after a discussion, will then clear up any final misconceptions and allow the class to move forward from the same starting position.

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