7 Ways to Spark Disengaged Algebra Students

Do you have students who struggle to "get it" in your algebra class? I've been there! The ideas and resources in this post work for special education algebra students and students who need some convincing that algebra is cool. The post includes links to a solving equations graphic organizer, quick check algebra templates, algebra pennants, math cheat sheets, partner math activities and an algebra 1 word wall. All of the algebra teaching ideas in this post are teacher tested and kid approved! I know they will work to reengage your students.

For 5 years I taught algebra 2 in a self-contained and an inclusion setting. Especially in my own classroom, I needed to reteach a lot of algebra topics. For 7 years before this position I taught algebra and algebra 2 in Boston where a lot of my students needed some convincing that math was super cool. So this post is a collection of resources and ideas that have worked in my classrooms to reach students who need extra support for one reason or another.

I love algebra, so when I hear kids say they don't like it, it breaks my heart. Algebra is that thread that connects so many maths, from what kids are learning in elementary school all the way through college calculus. It was my calculus professor in graduate school who first clued me in on the Freshman Dream. "What is that?" I asked during one of our tutoring sessions. He volunteered in the school's tutoring center once a week. He pointed to where I had simplified an (x+y)2 expression to x2+yin the denominator of a fraction. Here I was in calculus B committing a quintessential algebra error.

If you have students who are struggling in algebra or who just plain don't like it, I've been in your shoes. Most of my 13 years of teaching math were spent convincing kids to love math, that math is great, that algebra is the best, that math takes you places, so I get it! And I know the ideas in this post work.

In this post are 7 tried and true teaching ideas to spark a love of math in disengaged algebra students:

1: Solving equations graphic organizer

Solving equations graphic organizer
Solving equations graphic organizer

This solving equations graphic organizer came about after years of me trying to figure out how to reach my students who just could not "get" solving equations the traditional way. It's jam packed on the page so that it can be used as a student handout and covers equations with variables on the left, on the right, on both sides and combining like terms on one side first. 

Solving equations graphic organizer closeup
Solving equations graphic organizer closeup

How to use the organizer:

1: Students find the = sign.

2 Students find the + or - sign(s).

3: Students ask this question: "Which term on the side with the +/- is a like term to the term on the other side?

4: Students ask: "Is this term a + or -?

5: Students perform the opposite function on that term.


This line of questioning has gotten many of my students successfully solving within one class period. These were geometry and algebra 2 students, so the organizer also succeeded in overcoming their frustration and math anxiety that had built over the years.


2: Quick check math templates

Algebra 1 quick check template
Algebra 1 quick check template

I love templates. They offer students the structured practice needed for them to feel successful. I use them for warm ups, checks for understanding and exit tickets. Students come into my classroom and know to grab a template and look to the board for the day's problem. Sometimes in my algebra 2 class I'd give a graph, sometimes I'd give a function, and students would know it was up to them to complete the rest of the fields.

Algebra 1 quick check template with a place to type your own word problem
Algebra 1 quick check template

With this algebra 1 template, students can be given a table, graph or function and fill in the rest. They can even be given slope and y-intercept or y-intercept and zero and fill in the rest. One of the versions in the file allows you to type in your own word problem. There are so many options!

How to use templates:

I put a basket of templates at the front of my classroom for students to grab on the way in. I had a Powerpoint file of equations and graphs and would alternate which I gave each day. In my experience, finding the equation given a graph is harder for students, so we'd practice these a lot. You can also give a table and have students fill in the rest or any other combination of pieces.

Some days if I couldn't get a read on my class during the warm up, I'd collect the templates to check them. If students were unfocused, I'd give them a heads up that I'd be collecting them for a grade. This got everyone back on track. 

I have made other math templates especially for exponentials, systems, polynomials, etc. that we'd use (all linked above). Put into a page protector, students can use the same sheets over again. 


3: Math pennants

Ms. Rose's students' polynomial math pennants hanging in her classroom
Ms. Rose's students' polynomial math pennants

Math pennants came about as a way to combine practice with displaying student work with classroom decor. In my classroom we had a section of our bulletin board called "The Fridge" where students would hang their work. I saw how this built student confidence. On days when Johny didn't think he could do the work in front of him, I could point to his work on our bulletin board and say, "Yes you CAN!" So the board became a teaching tool as well as a confidence booster.

Domain and range math pennant activity
Domain and range math pennant

I feel that displaying student work is an important part of classroom decor because of how I saw it boost student confidence. Students of all ages like seeing their work displayed. My students were in 11th and 12th grade and would still rather hang their work in our classroom than bring it home.

You can get a free solving 2-step equations math pennant by subscribing to my blog.


4: Math cheat sheets

Graphing exponential functions math cheat sheet

My math cheat sheets post is consistently in the top 5 on my blog. In it are free downloadable math cheat sheets to give to students for their notebooks or to enlarge as anchor charts. Most were made for my inclusion algebra 2 students to help them remember the steps of solving exponential functions, quadratic functions, logarithmic functions, etc. 

How to use math cheat sheets

Most of the cheat sheets would be given to students for their notebooks to reference during homework or independent classwork time. In my own classroom, every assessment was always open notebook. This cut way down on math anxiety, put the ownership on students to keep organized notebooks and put the focus on learning how to access information instead of just memorizing it. 


5: Partner Scavenger Hunt Activities

In one of my classes one year, I had a senior with a boyfriend who went to our school. Totally normal, right? This sort of stuff happens everyday. What was not totally normal was that they never spoke face to face. They had only ever communicated online.

This got me thinking about building in ways for students to talk to each other in class. Even better, about math. I made partner scavenger hunts with this goal in mind. 

Partner scavenger hunt activities get students talking about their work as they collaborate

How to use partner scavenger hunts

Students work in partners. Both students paste their START slip at 12 o'clock, solve its math problem and find the solution on the top of another slip. They then paste this next slip at 1 o'clock and solve its math problem. Each answer students find will lead to the next problem to solve. 

If one student gets stuck, the other can help. If student answers differ, they work together to figure out the correct answer before moving on to the next problem. If all problems were solved correctly, the solution to the problem at 11 o'clock will be found at the top of their START slip. 

Partner scavenger hunts are self-checking, providing students with instant feedback. 


6: Self-checking math activities


Because that grading pile always seems to multiply overnight, I wanted to make a self-checking math activity that would free up some teacher time and give students more responsibility for their learning. These "solve 'n check" math task cards can be used as partner practice, independent work or as a math station.

Solve 'n check math tasks are self-checking and perfect station activities
Solve 'n check math tasks

On each card are 2 problems and a 'check' problem. Students solve the problems on their card then add, subtract, multiply or divide their answers to see if the result matches the check number. 

How to use solve 'n check math tasks

The cards can be used as stations, as partner work or as independent practice. As partner work, students can each solve one of the problems on a card and then combine their answers to check.


7: Algebra word wall

Algebra 1 word wall
Algebra word wall

Any list I write about teaching math wouldn't be complete without a mention of math word walls. Seriously, I feel like a broken record but adding references to my classroom walls was the single most effective thing I did as a teacher. 

Algebra 1 word wall - linear equations section
Algebra word wall linear references

My algebra word wall came about from a need in my algebra 2 classroom. My students kept needing reminders of the vocabulary around linear equations (slope, y-intercept, zeros, grid, graph, etc) and I needed a way to link what we were learning about nonlinear functions back to what they had learned a couple years earlier. I found myself drawing a linear graph on the board over and over, so that next summer I made linear equations references for our word wall. Since then, my algebra word wall has grown exponentially (ha!) and includes references to support learning in any algebra class.

Bonus! Algebra Tiles

I've written a few posts on ways to use algebra tiles to make abstract algebra topics more concrete. In this post there is a free set of printable algebra tiles that you can use under a document camera or give to students. 

Here are some more algebra tile posts I've written:

How to use algebra tiles to factor quadratic trinomials: with pictures

Solving equations using algebra tiles: with pictures

How to use algebra tiles to multiply polynomials: with pictures

Algebra Activities Bundle w/ GOOGLE updates

All of the activities in this post and a lot more are included in this Algebra Activities Bundle w/ GOOGLE updates. Many of the activities in the bundle have been updated with GOOGLE links so that they can be used in a blended learning classroom. All of the activities in the bundle are made to reach disengaged algebra students while also hitting the standards. 

I hope this post has been helpful! I loves teaching algebra and plan to get back to it after this short stint at home. I believe that a solid foundation in algebra can carry a student through any math he or she may see in high school, college and graduate school. And beyond! 

1 comment:

  1. I subscribe to your blog, but I don't recall getting the 2 step pennant download. Can I still get it somehow?

    ReplyDelete