4 ways to make math come alive with Google tools

Ed Tech

Ed Tech | Wednesday, March 6, 2019

4 ways to make math come alive with Google tools

Google tools can be used to increase engagement in any subject but sometimes we forget how powerful they can be in the math classroom. Here are 4 ways to use Google tools to make math come alive.

So many of the Google tools are valuable for many content areas and grade levels. When a teacher finds a creative use for one, it’s almost always easy to cross it over to another class.

Almost always.

Except for one.


My teaching career has been in high school Spanish. But working with math teachers, I’ve learned something.

Math is a beast of a whole different nature.

At a recent STEM conference, I shared some classroom tech ideas in a breakout session. It was hands-on. I thought, “Hopefully, they’ll have something practical to use in class.”

A very well-meaning math teacher (sixth grade) emailed me afterward. In a very polite way, she asked me, “How do we do this stuff in math?”

Are you like this teacher — wanting to do some meaningful yet fun activities with technology?

Or do you know someone like this teacher?

I put on my math teacher hat (which is a scary thing … remember, Spanish teacher!). This courteous math teacher told me some of the concepts she taught:

  • One-step and two-step algebra equations
  • Unit rates
  • Calculating percentages

… and I cooked up some activities for her, borrowing some from math teachers I respect and trying to invent some ideas myself.

Below is much of the email I sent to this lovely sixth grade math teacher. It includes four activities YOU can use in a math classroom — and some “pipelines” you can tap into with free-flowing cool ideas all the time.

Choose your own adventure

Teaching basic algebra can be a drag (I’d imagine) … especially if it’s all about repetitious practice of solving equations with no context.

Choose Your Own Adventure activity with Google Forms for the math classroom. Via Infinitely Teaching / Mandi Tolen.

Here’s an idea I LOVE from math teacher Mandi Tolen from Missouri. She teaches high school, but the idea can be scaled down to fifth grade. She has them create “Choose Your Own Adventure stories” with algebra equations. Here’s a blog post she wrote to describe what she does. In this post, there’s an example where the story relates to Harry Potter. One slide says, “While looking for the snitch, a bludger flies toward you. Hurry, you have to solve for X to find the coordinates of where to fly to avoid the bludger!”

Even if the content isn’t the same, the general idea can be used — finding a way that these algebra equations can relate to something kids are excited about. (Even if you have to force it just a little bit.)

Mandi has her students create with Google Forms. I’ve written about how you can do this with Google Slides. Here’s a post talking about how to link slides to slides and how to set it up … that’s what makes this “choose your own adventure” thing work with Slides. And here’s another post about how to create “one story, many endings”. This is a way you could set up an activity like Mandi’s (above) with Slides.

If you don’t want to use Slides, that’s fine. Just use a notebook — or a dozen or so pieces of copy paper stapled together. Write page numbers in the bottom corner and, with the options, tell them to turn to a certain page.

I know the idea above has “stories” in it, and you might think wait … this is math and not English. The story part isn’t the reason for the activity. It’s the part that hooks the students in and engages them, encouraging them to do the math that goes along with the story. Think about it … if students did more problems and didn’t have a reason for it vs. doing less problems but having a good, fun reason for it, which is more likely to stick? I’m saying less stories WITH motivation.

Mandi blogs about using tech and story elements to teach math at https://infinitelyteaching.wordpress.com/.

The “juicy essential question”

This blog post by Alice Keeler (great blog, by the way … http://alicekeeler.com) is one I always think of when it comes to great math teaching. She talks about the “juicy essential question” … the question you ask that students are actually, really curious about solving. (She cites Shelley Burgess for that term.)

Alice calls on an example from Robert Kaplinsky’s blog (http://robertkaplinsky.com/lessons) that asks you how you can save Nelly (the rapper).

In the question, he says Nelly owes money to the IRS for failing to pay his taxes. His fans suggest that they could save him by streaming his songs on Pandora and Spotify, giving him a small amount of money each time (between $0.006 and $0.0084 per song), until he is able to pay off the $2.4 he owes. He includes a news article with those numbers.

This is something students could solve in multiple steps on a Google Slides presentation. Have them start with a blank Slides presentation.

  • They state the problem on one slide.
  • They lay out the facts on the second slide.
  • They show how they’d set up the problem on the third slide.
  • They solve the problem on the fourth slide.
  • Then, they give the conclusion on the fifth slide — whether they think it’ll work, any advice they’d give Nelly, etc.

Students could present to the class, present in small groups, do a virtual gallery walk to see each other’s work, or even do a Screencastify video recording of their slides to talk out their answers.

Unit rates are everywhere

Unit rates, to me, appear to be fertile land for growing fun questions and activities. Mostly because they’re everywhere!

  • In the grocery store, it’s trying to figure out if the bigger bag is worth more per ounce.
  • At track practice, it’s trying to figure out if you’re running faster or slower at the end of practice. (time per mile, or per 100 meters, etc.) Sports statistics work really well here, too.
  • It could even be something silly, like who can eat the most gummy bears in 30 seconds.

A really great example of this is a set of slides Ginna Jones from Virginia created. She shared this recently on Twitter. She uses the back of a Bisquick box to create a pretty cool activity for unit rates.

This is just the beginning. Here’s a link to the whole activity (five slides).

This is also something that students could keep track of in a digital interactive notebook. I recently wrote a post about how you can do this in, yes (again), Google Slides. It includes coordinate planes and draggable activities — as well as lots of cool activities where you can have students activate the webcams of their devices to take pictures and insert them in their slides. Here’s a link to that post.

Using maps to calculate percents

Again, it seems like percents are everywhere. All we have to do is come up with those “juicy” essential questions.

One place (off the top of my head) where we can find percentages is with maps. And a great tool to use is Google MyMaps.

MyMaps lets you create a custom map, adding pins, creating routes and — more important to this activity — creating measurable polygons.

My “juicy essential question” — how much of Mr. Miller’s property is grass, and how much of it is woods? Ever since we bought it, I’ve always said it’s about half grass, half woods. Also, Mr. Miller says he owns about 25 acres. According to the map, is that pretty close to true?

Here’s how I did this activity:

1. I went to google.com/mymaps and created a new map. I found my house in west central Indiana on MyMaps by searching for my address. (I changed the map to a satellite map by clicking the “base map” button in the box in the top left and changing it to “satellite”.)

2. After that, I dropped pins on the four corners of my property (just to make it clear and easy what we were working with). I used the pin button (see arrow) in the top toolbar. Then I clicked to drop a pin and gave that pin a name (i.e. northwest corner, southeast corner, etc.). Repeated over and over until all four corners were labeled.

3. I used the polygon tool to draw the boundaries of the woods (the southeast part of the woods, and the sliver of woods in the northwest part of the property). You do that by dropping dots along the edges. I labeled those polygons “woods 1” and “woods 2”. Then, I drew the boundaries of the grass by dropping dots with the polygon tool as well. Labeled it “grass 1”.

4. Now, it’s time to collect data. You can click each polygon and it’ll display the acreage of each space. (I think there’s a place somewhere in the settings where you can change it from acres to something else if you need to … can’t remember where that is off the top of my head.) I gathered the acreages of each part.

Turns out, according to the map, it’s about 14 acres of woods and about 9.5 acres of grass.

5. Data analysis time. 14 acres of woods out of 23.5 acres is about 60 percent woods. Fairly close to 50/50 for just eyeballing it and guessing, but not very exact. Also, we found that the map shows that I had about 23.5 acres, not a full 25. However, that could bring up an important discussion in class about gathering data and how accurate it is and what factors might have caused those numbers to be inaccurate (i.e. inexact plotting of dots, not having exact corners of the property, etc.).

Messy data like that is sometimes better than the picture perfect data we get with worksheets and activities out of the book because kids have to think about the results more … even if we don’t have perfect answers for why the data is as it is.

It’s all about good questions

In all of these, it’s not about the techy tool you use. It’s not about having the most fun game or the best rewards (i.e. Tootsie Rolls, Jolly Ranchers).

It’s about giving kids a question they actually want to answer.

Is one good “juicy essential question” enough for them to reach mastery? My guess is that it’s not. Repetition to improve their skills is going to help them get there. Reps are still important.

But when we step away from the “do 1-24 odds and turn them in” approach and help them see math in context — and in a context that’s important to them — I think that’s where we get transfer … you know, when they take the skills from your class and can actually do something with them in the real world.

The goal here, I think, isn’t to find “creative activities” like these and copy/paste them. The goal is to find great questions and then give students great ways for them to demonstrate their problem-solving process — and present their results in a meaningful way.

A pipeline of new ideas

What’s key to improving in this area, I think, is always being on the lookout for those great questions — or new ways for students to demonstrate their understanding.

Others that always have great ideas related to math (off the top of my head):

Also, checking out online communities from time to time can give you ideas you can use in your classroom. One of the best is the #mtbos Twitter hashtag community. You can see it (whether you’re a Twitter user or not) at http://twitter.com/hashtag/mtbos. “#mtbos” stands for “math teacher blogosphere”. It basically means that the people who post there blog/write about teaching math and share their ideas on the hashtag. You don’t have to be a blogger to check it out and use the hashtag, though.

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  • […] tech teacher rose to the challenge and created a few Google tools to use in math. In addition to four math activities, he includes links to other teachers who create math […]

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