Engaging Reluctant Math Students


One of my very favorite things is to meet with former university students who are new teachers. Supporting them, brainstorming with them and listening to their stories is a great pleasure and honor.

Yesterday I met with one such teacher, Mrs. Gets It, about an unmotivated group of high school kids in a math class she teaches. This is a group of 9 kiddos that have experienced nothing but discomfort with math since kindergarden. They are also kids with EBD (Emotional/Behavioral Disorders) IEPs.

The district in which Mrs. Gets It works uses a difficult math curriculum and insists all kids take a specific series of math classes for which make no sense and have no relevancy to a certain populations, general ed as well as special ed. It’s another one of those race to the top decisions made by people more interested in data and scores than students living real lives.

So, Mrs. Gets It was trying her darnedest to find a place from which to start. She was met with lots of behavioral issues as this group of students feels no connection to much of the high school content. She also noticed how her students have little, if any, number sense.

I suggested she completely abandon the math curriculum she was given and figure out what her students actually understand about the language of math and to determine the quality of their number sense.

So, where does one start that, especially with a group of kids so absolutely against math they will do anything to avoid it?


The card game?

Yep. Give each reluctant and resistant teenager a deck of cards. Right there they are sucked in.

Tell them the next few weeks will be all about finding patterns. No homework, no paper pencil work, no worksheets, no text book. The goal is to find, as a whole group, as many patterns in this game as possible, to make as many observations as possible. Use math language. Increase, decrease, less than, descending, ascending- any vocabulary words related to math you can get them to use. Check with common core all the way back to kindergarden standards to get a solid understanding of the language of math. Keep a large running list posted for all to see. When kids see a pattern, they add it to the running list. The goal is to get to the end of the week activity which is to play 9 handed group solitaire.

Ever played group solitaire?December 2010 104

It’s a blast. It’s motivating. It gets the blood pumping. It helps build attending behaviors. It’s a good thing.

Here is the lesson. Feel free to try it and let me know how it works for you.

Day 1

  • Post a list of all the math vocabulary you found in common core and district standards as a reference. Just briefly, very briefly,  go over that list and tell the students we want to use as many of these words as we can in the next week or so. Do not go through each one with definitions. Ick. That would be very demotivating.
  • images-9Give each student his/her own deck of cards. Each deck needs to be somehow different n the decorated side than the others. You can easily use a sharpie and put all red Xs on one deck, all green on another and so on. You can use shapes or even the students’ names on each card. (this is the sort of thing I liked to do in the evenings while listening to NPR or watching Netflix)
  • Make sure everyone is familiar with what a deck of cards consists of. Let them determine that there are 52 cards plus 2 jokers. Make sure they know what a suit is, what each suit is called. Start the pattern list as a group as they explore what they notice about a deck of cards. This is fairly easy so they will all feel successful.
  • Make sure they all have a chance to practice shuffling the carimages-10ds, messing around with them. You will be surprised how many kids do not have any experience with a deck of cards. Let them get to know their deck of cards. Do not rush this.
  • Ask who knows how to play solitaire.
  • Teach the card set up for solitaire and have the students tell you what patterns they see when setting their cards up. Encourage using math language. So, if they say the cards go up, rephrase for them using ‘increase by one’… so on. Refer to vocabulary chart you have posted- IF they are willing to use that before stating the pattern they found, that is great. If not, think out loud as YOU use the chart
  • If time, show this video.
  • And then this one . You will want to show these again tomorrow.

Day 2

  • Hand out decks of cards, do a quick review of the patterns you found yesterday. Let the students mess around the cards for a bit.
  • Watch a solitaire hand played using this.
  • klondike-solitaire-set-upHave students set cards up for solitaire and remind them to think about patterns and add observations to the lists as they see them.
  • Practice playing solitaire. Just let the students get used to the game itself.
  • Your students may want to simply download the game on their smartphones. Tell that is fine for practice outside of class, but in class, you use real decks of cards.images-1
  • Have the students count the cards they played on aces after each hand.
    This is preparation for when they play with against each other.
  • Just play solitaire. Reshow videos as needed, keep talking as you wander around the room making sure everyone is setting up and playing correctly.
  • Put some good music on in the background, have snacks.                                                        Why? Bebblcause you want to get this into long term memory and associate positive feelings with being in your class and using math vocabulary (brain based learning).

Day 3

  • If everyone is comfortable with the game and using cards, pair them up. Teach them to play against each other. They can play on each other’s aces in the middle and the idea is to play the most cards . Put slower processors with slower processors because processing speak is important factor.
  • When neither player can play anymore cards and they have exhausted all possibilities, have them gather the piles built up from the aces in the middle and sort. Each player then counts their pile of sorted cards and record that number. Highest number of cards played, wins. I would start with just determining winner per hand. Once they are feeling confident, they should keep a running score, adding the numbers from each round. At the end of the class period, the highest score wins.
  • Make sure to add pattern observations and use math language as you observe students playing.images-7

Day 4

  • Reshow videos if needed and answer questions, prompt sharing of patterns found in numbers, colors, strategy.
  • Practice in pairs for two rounds.
  • Tell students they will now play in groups of 3 and that the end goal is to play with all 9 students at once.

Continue each day as the day before, making the groups larger as competence and confidence builds.

As you know, your observations, thinking out loud, encouragement and use of inquiry are key to making this a positive learning experience.

I might invite other adults to come in and observe on the 9 player day, let the students show off their pattern observation lists. They are now experts.


And you all know how I love making students experts.

Have fun and let me know if you try this, if you have questions, and share your results.


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