Friday, December 14, 2007

The decimal point's job... where's the one?

This has been a long and stressful week, but it ended well yesterday. The biology classes were on a field trip, so my Algebra 2 class only had about 5 kids in it. I didn't bother trying to teach anything new - I just helped them with the homework, and then we spent the rest of the time looking at different problems they needed help with, and talking about stuff that was on their minds... some "remember when", since I taught most of them as Freshmen - they remember amazingly well things that I said over two years ago, as long as they are not math related, apparently... we talked through some of their fears about going to college... we reviewed fractions... I wish there were more times available to just sit and chat with students.

In my Numeracy classes, the goal of the day's lesson was to learn how the base-10 positional system works, with a focus on the decimal side of things. Specifically, I wanted them to be able to represent fractions and percents as decimals, and to understand how each decimal place relates to a specific base-10 fraction. This lesson went very poorly on Thursday with my first two classes, due to management issues (i.e. they were behaving terribly). Is there ever a point in time when you can get through a week without feeling like a first-year teacher again? Anyway, I didn't rewrite the lesson for my Friday classes, because I was confident that it was actually a good lesson, and worthwhile.. I just tightened it up, and made sure to stay on top of things behaviorally, and it really paid off. The discussions in both periods (and these are my two weaker classes) were quite rich and productive. On my board, I had taped up papers as in the graphic above, and told students that each smaller piece had been made by cutting the previous one up into 10 pieces. I asked how big each was, and they easily saw that each paper was 1/10 of the one to the left. I then asked which paper represented one whole. Some students thought it was the 10 big pieces, some thought it was the single full-size piece, some thought it was one of the smaller ones. They discussed it, and as I kept asking more students what they thought, in each class, several students started saying that any one of the pieces could be one whole. They convinced each other without much of my prompting - it was like magic! I then pulled out my magic Decimal Point cutout, and told them that the decimal point has one and only one job - to determine which shape is worth one whole. I taped the point up on the board (making the full sheet of paper the one whole for this lesson), and we then proceeded to label all the place values relative to one whole. All of a sudden, why the tenths are called "tenths" started to make sense for some students.

I showed what the fraction 71/100 would look like by taping up 7 strips and 1 tiny square in the right columns, and then translated this to the decimal 0.71. We did a couple more examples (I called students up to try some), and then they began asking about adding zeros at the end. Some thought it was ok, and others thought it would change the value. So I had them debate for a while if 0.6 and 0.60 were the same or not. Eventually, they were convinced that they were the same. So, to push them, I asked why 6 and 60 are not the same, which allowed me to show them that the 0's only change the value when they push a digit into a different place value. For each example, I also went back to the definition of percent (a fraction out of 100) to show that the tiny squares must therefore be considered 1% each. This made it easy to see why 0.36 would be the same as 36%, as they could see the 36 little squares on the board (comprised of 3 strips and 6 squares). It also made it easy to explain why 0.237 is the same as 23.7% - you have 23 little squares, and 7/10 of a little square.

I saw quite a few light bulb moments over the course of this lesson. I need to find a way to get my first two periods back on board now... We'll review this on Monday; I hope that, by the end of next week, students will all be able to compare and order decimals, and easily move back and forth between decimal, fraction, and percent representations. That would be quite an accomplishment, and a good way to go into break.


Denise in IL said...

I like your base-10 lesson, especially that your students were able to convince each other that any of the pieces could represent one whole. This makes the connection between decimals and whole-number math easy to see, since any column could be the ones, or tens, or tenths. The relationships between neighboring columns is always the same, wherever we are in a number. Your lesson also makes clear the need for a decimal point---a simple job, marking the "ones", but very important.

Anonymous said...

I really like this lesson - If you don't mind, I'm going to pass it on to our Algebra Lab teachers.

Thanks so much for sharing!

Dan Wekselgreene said...

Thanks for the comments. The lesson is based on activities in the book by John Van de Walle:

Elementary and Middle School Mathematics: Teaching Developmentally (5th edition)

I highly suggest this book, as it has many good ideas for activities that target specific math concepts that students often lack when they get to high school.