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A Third Day of Absolute Values

The median score on the first test was not good. It revealed the extent to which many of my students just weren’t getting what I was trying to teach.

I was convinced that I was doing something fundamentally wrong, despite reassurances from all the other math teachers that this is a common reality we are up against, that it wasn’t my teaching. Hearing that helped, but it seemed obvious to me that I had to do something.

So Friday, we didn’t move on to inequalities. Instead, we spent a third day on absolute values — this time, done differently.

“Here’s what we’re going to do today…” I told the kids. I explained how we were going to work problems together as a class, with each of them coming up to the board to contribute.

As you might imagine, they looked at me in horror. Then I told them how we were going to do it. 

We’d start with the last problem on the sheet they had been working on (mostly unsuccessfully) the day before. One by one, we’d set up each of the problems, working backward thru the list. Our focus was going to be on the set-up part of the problem: we weren’t going to completely work them but rather set them up so that the solving part left undone was something they already knew how to do.

I listed the steps in our (new) set-up process on the board. They were tiny steps.

“The first step,” I explained, “is to copy the problem onto the board. One of you will do that. The others should check that they copied it correctly. And that’s it for that step.”

“The next step is to draw a wide horizontal line and a vertical line under it. Someone else will do that — which is kind of like “art”. And that’s it for that step.”

“The next step is to draw a circle…”

“The next step is…”

Then I proceeded to explain the other microscopic steps. I pointed to the list of steps I had written on the board in the morning. I explained how they would help each student at the board, how none of them would be alone when it was their turn, how we would back them up, how this was not a math performance, how it was a group project.

“We are doing this together,” I said.

Then I called on one of them randomly to kick things off. Then another for step two. Then another. And another. Sometimes the students would raise their hands to volunteer (often for the steps that involved drawing lines, but later for more substantial stuff). Sometimes they would call on the next person themselves. And sometimes the student I called on was too shy to come forward, so I just asked them to tell me what to write from their seats.

It worked. Magnificently.

The classroom was loud. The kids laughed. When they volunteered, they jumped out of their seats. Some of them began to work the problems in little groups so they could be ready in case I called on one of them. They got to choose their own whiteboard marker colors. They got to choose how large (or small) to write. They got to turn and ask for help.

And in each of the six periods that day, with only a few exceptions, every student came to the board (some of them several times) to work on math.

It was a good third day of absolute values.