Today I spent most of my day in the computer lab where my Algebra IB students took a "mock" end-of-course exam. Those days are so draining for some reason! I am happy that it gave me the opportunity to finish reading Jo Boaler's What's Math Got To Do With It? which I believe every math teacher should read! Thankfully one of the last chapters discusses some puzzles and number talk activities that are good for students. I was so tired I could not imagine having a "normal" class with my 5th period today. Instead I gave them The Four 4s to do as an activity. The task asks them to try to make every number between 0 and 20 using only four 4s and any mathematical operation. The directions for the task gives one example and then asks them how many of the numbers between 0 and 20 they can find.
At first my students wanted me to give them more examples but I refused by telling them I didn't want to rob them of the opportunity to get them on their own (haha!). I finally got a few of them moving by telling them to just write four 4s on their papers and then put some operation signs in between them. Once they did this I told them to evaluate the expression making sure they used the order of operations correctly. This really got them rolling. A cool thing about this task was that everyone worked on it. At the beginning I had to seperate a few that were totally off task but once they saw that they could get some of the numbers they worked on their own.
I think that you need to have variety in your classes. I have many students who do not enjoy an activity when they view it as purely mathematical but when you give them a puzzle to solve they engage. I intend to use activities like this more often. One of the discussions on Boaler's website (youcubed.org) talked about how they just listed the numbers 0 thru 20 on a board in the back of the room and allowed students to write their expressions and put their name beside it. That way all of the classes throughout the day could contribute until all of the numbers are found. This task will engage some students that are bored with the normal daily routine!
Just in case you read this blog because you are using the IMP Meaningful Math textbooks, Jo Boaler has a list of 3 curricula that she recommends for use in 9-12 and the Interactive Mathematics Program from It's About Time is on that list. After I started reading her book I realized that she was one of the keynote speakers at NCTM this year. I learned so much about what the research says about the best ways to teach math for student success!