When I was in school, math class was filled with teacher-directed instruction. Rarely were there activities or projects. Usually, we were assigned problems in a textbook or provided worksheets to complete. This kind of work bored me and so I struggled to see how it applied to my life. When am I ever going to need to learn how to find the measure of an angle in a stop sign? Perhaps you frequently get stopped by police officers asking you to determine the angle in the stop sign, but I don’t. It almost always seemed to me that I was learning useless skills in my math classes. To this day, other than the basic math operations, I use none of what I was taught in math. I don’t need it. Maybe that’s not true. Perhaps I am using those math skills I was taught, but because their relevance and meaning wasn’t highlighted in class, I never realized how and when I might actually need to find the cube root of the measure of an acute angle. Then, in eighth grade, my math teacher dropped a bomb. Not a real bomb mind you, that would have been horrible and atrocious. No, she allowed me to see how the basic operations I learned in elementary school will be used later in my life. We completed a unit on financial literacy. We learned how to balance a checkbook, make a budget, and effectively manage money. It was awesome. Everything I had learned in math class started to make sense. I realized why I needed to know how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide numbers. Everything became so clear to me. I saw the relevance in the math skills. I wish my other math teachers had made use of such relevant and meaningful activities and projects so that I might better appreciate and still be able to explain why the measure of each angle in a quadrilateral is equal to something and something. Allowing me to see why I had learned math, changed my life. It all made sense to me.
As a math teacher, I try with all of my power to make use of hands-on activities and meaningful projects that allow students to see the purpose in the math skills learned. I want them to understand why they need to know how to find the percentage of a number or add fractions. I generally try to explain the relevance of every skill covered so that they see why they are having to do the work. I don’t want them to grow up confused like I did.
In STEM class on Saturday, to help my students see the value in accurately adding and subtracting decimals, I made one of my lifetime dreams a reality. Ever since I was young, I wanted to own a sports card shop. I love collecting baseball and other sports cards. When I was in middle school, my friend and I even hosted our own card show in a nearby hotel. We advertised and made tons of money. It was awesome. But, I was never able to do more than that. Until Saturday.
Rather than just explain to students the real-world application of decimals, I wanted them to experience it first hand. So, I brought in a bunch of my unopened baseball card packs and boxes and opened Mr. Holt’s Dugout Sports Card Shop in the classroom. I provided each student with a gift certificate and a piece of graph paper. They could use the gift certificate to buy as many cards as possible, as long as they accurately and properly completed the addition and subtraction of decimals needed to show how much money they would spend and have left. It was so much fun. The students loved opening the cards and finding some hall of famers. The boys kept running up to me showing me their great finds. “Look Mr. Holt, I got a Fred McGriff MVP card!” I smiled and celebrated right along with them, not mentioning the fact that the card is worth less than the paper it was printed on. They were seeing the relevance in adding and subtracting decimals in the form of money because they needed to effectively apply the skill in order to walk away with free cards. Following the activity, I asked the students for feedback. They loved the activity. One student said, “How could you not love this activity. We got free baseball cards. Even if you don’t like baseball, you got free stuff.” From the mouths of babes.
Yes, I might have enjoyed this activity a tiny bit more than my students as I felt like an entrepreneur, but I also made a math skill relevant to them. Hopefully, they now all understand the importance of knowing how to add and subtract decimals. They had so much fun doing math in class. They were so excited when they found out that they had accurately completed a math problem because it meant they received more fun packs of old baseball cards. How cool is that? To me, great teaching is about helping students see the relevance and value in what they are learning. If they can buy into the curriculum, they will be so much more engaged, thus, making genuine learning happen.