Start the Year with Math Tool Explorations

chinese-28911__180In my last post, I talked about creating a classroom culture that promotes classroom discourse. The time to begin this is the start of the school year, when students are getting to know each other, getting to know you, and getting use to the ‘learning’ environment. My suggestion was to start these first couple of weeks with activities that are not necessarily content related, but more ‘interest’ related, because students are much more comfortable talking to others, i.e. strangers, about summer movies or vacations than they are about math. There’s no worry about not knowing something or saying the wrong thing – remember the focus in these first two days is to help students learn to communicate with each other, work together, and understand that your classroom is about learning together and everyone has a voice. Those first few times of group work or collaboration, keep it simple – remember the focus is on creating a ‘safe’ place for discussion – listening and sharing with others.  After they’ve had some time, then you begin to introduce content to the mix.

One of the things I liked to do during those first few days of school as part of this classroom culture, was to introduce the technology and other tools we would be using during the year. This allowed students to get familiar with the tools in a non-threatening, simple math focused way, ask questions, get help, and basically become comfortable using stock-photo-16971778-school-suppliesthe tools. It provided a lot of engagement and interaction as well.

For example, since I used Sketchpad weekly, I made sure that first week of school classes were in the computer lab a couple times and playing around with Sketchpad (I did not have laptops or iPads…just a lab that I signed up for 2 times a week).  It was very informal these first few times, focused on getting familiar with the program and the tools of the software so that when we did eventually use it as part of our content, they’d have had their playtime already and we could focus on using it to learn math. Same thing with protractors, compass, rulers, tangrams, calculators and whatever other tools I might be using for the subjects I was teaching (usually Geometry & Algebra). We would have “explore time”, where students would be given some simple math objects or activities – i.e. angles, sides, shapes, treasure hunts, and work together to use the tools to measure angles, sides, etc. They had to confer with each other if they got different answers, help each other if they weren’t sure how to read/use a tool, and I would also do some review of how the tools were used as well (particularly the protractor).


For the calculators, they would have a scavenger hunt – things like find the on button, graph a line, solve an equation, etc. and they would have a quick-start guide to help them. Even if students had their own calculators that were different, the scavenger hunt still worked and helped everyone learn to use their own calculator.  Just letting them explore on their own and teach each other helped foster collaboration, brought out some class leadership skills, and let provided some valuable time learning tools that saved time in the long run when those tools would be needed for more difficult learning of math concepts.

Today’s classrooms I realize might be a bit more diverse with technology tools – especially if students are bringing their own devices.  But – it’s still important to provide time for students to explore and play with tools. Providing some focused math explorations (i.e. measuring objects or creating a scavenger hunt), even if students have different devices, still allows for them to get comfortable with tools they will be using for learning. It alsoOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

allows you to understand the different devices and tools students have and get a handle on where you might need to make some adjustments.

It’s pretty easy to create simple math tool explorations – think of the tool, what will students need to use the tool for, and then create a couple of ‘to-do’ activities. Provide Cheat-sheets for the more advanced tools (i.e. calculators or Sketchpad software for example) that students can reference, but really rely on students figuring it out on their own or working together to figure out how to use a tool. That’s part of the challenge, and part of the classroom culture creation – depending on each other when you are stuck or protractor-769048__180want to verify your solution.



  • Create a sheet with several different angles and have students measure
  • Give them some specific angle measures that they then need to create the angles
  • Give them shapes (polygons) and ask them to measure the angles

stock-photo-100095203-geometric-shapes-on-darkSketchpad/Geogebra dynamic math software

  • Have them do basic constructions – i.e. draw a circle, make a segment, construct a line, make two lines meet at a 90 degree angle, construct a triangle
  • Measure things they constructed
  • Play with all the tools and describe what each one does

Calculators (graphing for this example) (provide a reference/cheat sheet, for example: (Some very basic sample questions below just to give an idea)

  • Where is the on button (describe location)
  • How do you turn off the calculator?
  • What happens when you push the Graph Menu?
  • How do you enter a y= equation?
  • Enter 3 and 3/4 into your calculator – change it to a decimal – how did you do it?