Entry 09 – Frustrating Moments in Middle School Math

Entry 09 – Frustrating Moments in Middle School Math

This week’s prompt was the following:

How does your curriculum / teaching style here at Headwaters compare to the way you taught in other private schools, public schools, or schools outside of the US?

I feel I kind of answered that after my first year here at Headwaters (formerly known as Khabele).  I wrote a post that talked about all the differences between my time in a public elementary school to my time at this private middle/high school.  You can check it out HERE.  I guess this post will be more of a reflection on the week instead.

We had a 4-day week; staff training on Monday.  Continued exploring integers in Pre-Algebra, continued doing a really bad job of teaching decimal division in Math Skills, and continued a new project in robotics.


We’re getting into subtracting integers and I’m going the route of having students turn all subtraction problems into addition problems (ie. 7 -5 would be 7 + (-5) or 8 – (-2) would be 8 + 2).  Once everything is in addition form, it’s a lot easier to just manipulate the expression and think about having a ton of +1s and -1s. The day we did the lesson, the students were rocking the practice worksheet and seemed to really get it.  Two days later, they were at a loss and seemed to forget much of what we learned.  I had one student really struggling to understand why 8 – (-2) was the same as 8 + 2.  I tried showing him the difference between 8 + (-2) and 8 – (-2) on a number line and I explained it by saying ‘if you’re not, not hungry, what would that mean,’ but it still wasn’t clicking.  He sort of just moved on and said ‘well I know what I’m supposed to do with this but I just don’t know why…and you can’t really learn math without knowing the why.’  I told him I agreed.  Will try to touch base with him in office hours next week.

We’re flying through the curriculum; I think I was barely finishing up Unit 1 at this point last year and now we’re about to finish Unit 2.  With the pace we’re going and dropping one of the units that I used to teach, I may actually get through all the units this year which is exciting!  I think since I abbreviated the Week of iMath activities this year and the classroom economy stuff is running much more smoothly than it’s ever gone, it’s helped with the pacing.


I have two math skills classes.  One of them does fairly well with trying out new problems, discussing their ideas with each other, volunteering to share their work with the class, and just generally buying into most of what we’re doing.

My other one, which is actually a lot smaller, has been much more of a struggle.  Many students just don’t write anything unless I’m standing over them watching.  I’ll say ‘ok turn and talk to the person next to you about what you did’ and many of them will just look at each other and say ‘…I don’t know what to do.’  I also have a lot more off-task behavior and conversations.  Today I think was just one of the worst days in there.  I felt like we weren’t really going anywhere.

I’m generally good at responding to frustrating behaviors in a pretty calm and matter-of-fact way but with this class, I feel the frustration ends up coming out a little more. More than anything, I’m frustrated with myself because I wouldn’t have nearly as many of these problems if the lesson was actually interesting, but it’s not.  It’s boring.  It’s dividing decimals.  I don’t know how to make it interesting or engaging or meaningful.  A friend of mine said how he really just emphasizes estimating since the reality is that they won’t need to really know how to churn out quotients using the standard algorithm.  I think I may go that route next year.

I’m ready to move onto the next unit.  On top of that, since it is such a small class, I have them sitting a little bit more bunched up just so everyone is closer to the front, but I think that’s adding to the off-task behavior.  I’ve known this for over a week but wanted to wait until after student-led conferences to create a new seating chart but I’m going to go ahead implement a new one this next week.


I’m doing a new project where students have to build something that incorporates all the sensors that are available on the robot.  I’m building my own as well.  Mine will be a robot that can tell who is holding it though a series of questions.  I only have 8 students so it was easy to ask just a few questions to narrow down who the person is.  For example:

  • 1st question- using the color sensor, what color is your hair?
  • 2nd question – are you under 5’3 (yes or no)
  • YES – Hi Henri!

Should be fun. One student is building a little puppy that can sit.  Another one is building a sorting game kind of like this.

By Thom H Gibson

I help middle school STEM teachers create meaningful & memorable experiences for their students. Teacher, podcaster, YouTuber. Two-time teacher of the year

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  • Hm. I wonder if connecting decimal division to some kind of visual would be helpful? I doubt it would make it engaging though! But if enough students “get it” then the engagement sometimes comes from success with the topic. I typically only got my students (future teachers) to work with decimals after I knew they were bang-on with fraction arithmetic. Fractions much more widely used, and the visual/manipulative use for decimals flows fairly readily form the fraction stuff. Wishing you the best with your classes!

    • Hey Bryan, thanks for chiming in 🙂 We don’t have base 10 blocks at our school so I have students draw them. I have them draw two flats (representing 2 wholes) and divide it by one rod (representing 0.1). The idea being that they may think that 2 ÷ 0.1 is 0.2, but with that visual, they see it’s 20. The first class did pretty well with it. The second class didn’t really connect with it much. May contemplate doing fractions before decimals next year.

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