Algebra Here We Come!

After a full three months of focusing on mostly numbers and operations, we are finally moving on to one of my favorites: ALGEBRA! It's funny how a lot of sixth graders get instantly scared and nervous when I say we are starting algebra. Most don't really know exactly what it is before we start and quickly realize it isn't all that fact, it can be kind of fun! In this post I plan to highlight some of my favorite activities, games, and lessons that I use in my classroom during our algebra unit. There is so much you can do with expressions and equations. I seems like every year I find some new idea, from somewhere or someone, that my students end up enjoying!

On Monday we started our algebra unit with a two day review of the order of operations. On the first day, I taught my normal math workshop lesson from our textbook. Most students remember PEMDAS right away. However I quickly tell them my one biggest fear of them using PEMDAS, which is that multiplication doesn't always come before division and addition doesn't always come before subtraction! When I have my students write their notes, I make sure that multiplying/dividing are at the same level and adding/subtracting are at the same level!

On the second day of our review I tried out a new activity that I created. I actually found the idea online somewhere, but don't remember exactly where! I copied and cut out a set of these order of operation cards for each of my students. For the activity, I gave students a target number and then they had to try to use their operation cards to create an expression that equaled the target number. Although it was very challenging for a lot of my students, they were very engaged and really enjoyed it. After we did five or six of these expressions, I had students work on this order of operations worksheet that I found last year. I don't give out a ton of worksheets in my class, but students seem to enjoy the mystery design aspect of this one!

After our two days of order of operations, we finally get to dive into our algebra units! On Wednesday we learned about variables: what they are, how and why we use them, and how to substitute a number for a variable to solve an expression. This is the lesson students come in nervous (when they hear we are starting algebra) and leave feeling like it's a piece of cake (plugging in a number and then just doing the math!). This change in attitude and confidence is fun to watch! Although, I make sure to warn them that not all algebra will be this simple! A few years ago I created this Algebra Top-it game for students to practice using substitution to solve algebraic expressions. It is similar to the card game War, but students must first solve an expression to get their number. Click on the picture if you are interested in a copy!

On Thursday and Friday started writing our own algebraic expressions to represent a situation. This can be tricky for students the first time around. I tried to really stress how important it is to define the variable first (pick a variable to stand for the quantity you don't know), before trying to write the expression. This is a topic we will definitely have to keep working at as we make our way through the beginning of algebra!
Over the weekend I got inspired to start creating some more Top-it games similar to the one I described above. I went a little equation crazy and created separate Equation Top-it games for solving addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and two-step equations. Each includes a beginner and difficult set of equation cards. I look forward to using these when we start solving equations next week.

It's hard to believe there are only two more weeks of school left before a full two weeks of winter break! If you haven't been able to tell, I am excited to spend those two weeks introducing algebra to my sixth graders before we get into some more depth after the break. Hope you all have a great week!

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