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How to Bring the Real World into Your Classroom

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard a student say, “But when will I ever use this?” Their frustration is understandable—no one likes having to memorize facts that don’t feel relevant! The trick is to make your lesson plans feel useful, and current, using language and ideas that are accessible to your student. And maybe you can have a little bit of fun along the way, too!

Play a Game!

Younger students can benefit from genuinely fun ways of using math. Dice games, card games, and strategy games can all have math elements. A dice game of War can be an easy way to reinforce addition or subtraction. Students shake two dice, and either add the total of them or subtract the lower number from the higher number. The first student to reach 100 wins. Make it harder by declaring a certain number or combination to be “wild”; for instance, rolling doubles can set a student all the way back to zero. Most dice games can also be replicated with a deck of cards. Remember that with games, the complexity of the rules and making it harder to win will make it more fun. You can take these games out of the classroom setting, too—some students will genuinely enjoy these games better if they can play them in a “fun” space, like outside or in the family room!

No matter the age of your students, there are lots of ways to insert the real world into your lesson plans, homework, sample questions, tests, and every other part of your curriculum. You can start by thinking through ways you use math in your everyday life!

  • Driving a car. Measuring distance and time can feel old and tired after enough algebra lesson plans, but try using familiar landmarks as the framework for your sample problems. For added complexity, try sample questions that involve gas usage, or the most efficient way to pick up multiple friends from their homes. Use Google maps to look up distances and routes.
  • Buying groceries, realizing that the Brussels sprouts have gone bad, and joyfully returning them to the store. Or, buying groceries for roommates and needing to split up the cost. Or, going to buy groceries with a $20 bill and needing to figure out how to maximize those dollars. (Added bonus: these examples work for any retail examples, such as buying comic books, splitting a pizza with friends… whatever will feel real for your student.)
  • Planning a vacation. While it’s fun to dream about visiting new places, it’s also a good way to think about multi-step math problems. Distance and time traveled, ways to get there, and costs all show up in our vacations, and your student might even feel inspired to plan your next family trip.
  • Looking at a pay stub. For older students especially, it can be eye-opening to think through a monthly budget and living expenses. Make it feel real by starting with a pay stub, and let your student pick the job they want to model their example after. You can start with basics (planning on an hourly wage) and add complexity by thinking through withholdings or 401(k) contributions.
  • Doing your taxes. While these examples might be less fun, they’re still appropriate for older students, and will feel relevant. Taxes can provide great examples that deal with percentages, brackets, and variables.
  • Building something or crafting something. Real-life geometry problems might feel hard to come by, but if you’ve ever built a birdhouse or sized a sewing pattern, you’ve already got content to work with!

Talk it Out!

But the number one best way to make math engaging for a student of any age? Talk about it! Ask them questions like, how did you solve this? Why did you choose that strategy? Are there any other strategies that would work? If x part of this question changed, how would y be impacted? Did you struggle with this? Did this feel similar to any other concepts we’ve studied?

Convincing students that math isn’t boring might feel like a tall task, but it’s one of the most relevant things we teach. Math is part of our everyday lives, and all our students will benefit from having that mentality as part of their math education!

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