To Algebra or not to Algebra

Today’s work is to begin making an outline of the year on what I want to teach in my 8th grade Pre-Algebra course.  My students will call their class “Algebra Scholars” which is the class title my former students came up with 3 years ago when I taught an Algebra 1 support class.

These students took “Pre-Algebra” last year, and although they did quite poorly, I don’t want them to feel that they are repeating the same course (as they are most certainly not). So, as of now, “Algebra Scholars” refers to this class  I am designing.  I would like input, LOTS OF INPUT, about how to teach this class and what content should be included.  While I have plenty of my own ideas, I’m quite aware that this type of class is taught in schools all over the country and more often than not, it’s not successful.   I’m sure there are places in this country where schools have successful programs to support the lowest skilled students in really becoming algebra-ready, to allow them to thrive and succeed in Algebra 1 as 9th graders.  If you know of one of these places or are a teacher who has successfully done this, please do share.

While there have been many unsuccessful versions of an 8th grade Algebra-Readiness course for low skilled students, I am very committed to learning from these experiences and developing a course which really will allow these students to be successful in Algebra 1, one year from now.  And for those who don’t know me, I pushed very hard for permission to design and teach this class.  I very much want to teach this class and am quite excited about the process of designing it.

I sat down today to look through a few resources as I begin sketching out there year.

There’s the district-purchased curriculum:  (no surprise here)

And there’s a really good Algebra-Readiness program that I previewed at UCLA when it was first being developed around 6 years ago.

But I got really distracted by this article, published on the UCLA site, about how to determine which students will be successful in 8th grade algebra and what mathematics these students knew by the end of 7th grade.  I also found it fascinating to read about what the decision-making process is for schools to determine which students will take 8th grade Algebra 1, or whether all students do, regardless of how they did in 7th grade Pre-Algebra.

And finally, as I return to my task of beginning to make an Algebra Scholars framework for the year, I am pondering why so few of the types of tasks outlined in this article on algebraic thinking, are included in our pre-algebra or algebra courses.  THIS is the type of thinking I plan to focus on all year in Algebra Scholars.

So much to say…this is just the tip of the iceberg on this topic…please support, critique, question, inspire my thinking as much as possible.  That’s why I’m here writing…


6 thoughts on “To Algebra or not to Algebra

  1. I am sharing a folder on dropbox with you that I made for my friend who was doing a Saturday program with middle schoolers. I liked the Carnegie Learning pre-algebra curriculum, maybe ask them for a sample? I have too many ideas to share at once so feel free to email me about more specific questions.

  2. Allison, It sounds like you have quite a challenge presented to you, and I love that you are opening up a discussion on this topic. I think a clear focus on developing a strong class community culture and helping students create class rights and responsibilities, set clear personal goals and design their own rubrics would be a good start. Maybe the students could map out the year with you together and work on “becoming the experts”. Have you read “Drive” by Daniel Pink – lots of great ideas in there to apply in the classroom. I would suggest that you “go slow so that you can go fast” and strive to build the three most important elements for human motivation: autonomy, mastery and purpose.

    Now, HOW do we accomplish that in a classroom? Great question, maybe we can answer it together?.

  3. Tina: Thanks for the files (and for introducing me to dropbox!) and I will email you. In the meantime, for you and anyone else…I can make my request simple…if you are a high school teacher, and you could share one wish/request of the 8th grade teachers of your incoming 9th grade algebra students, what would it be?

    Ian: I am not familiar with “Drive” but will check it out this week as I am deep in thought on how to begin the year with these students. It took quite a push on my end to get permission to develop and teach this Algebra Scholar course. I got help in gathering and collecting a ton of data on former students’ 6th and 7th grade scores and how test scores in those grades were or were not a predictor of success in 8th and 9th grade algebra. For us, 100% of students who scored below a certain level in 6th and 7th grade math ended up repeating algebra in 9th grade. I argued that if we know from our data that students below this level will repeat algebra as 9th graders, I suspect that there are far better ways to prepare them to be successful in 9th grade algebra than simply (unsuccessfully) teaching them algebra in 8th grade. It was and still is, though, a huge equity issue between the 3 schools and brings up the question of why we’re creating more tracking and whose right it is to give or deny access to 8th grade algebra. I very much see both sides of it. I plan to closely track my Algebra Scholars students as 9th and 10th graders and learn from their experiences in high school. P.S. Being back in touch with you around education issues makes me so happy to have started this blog!

  4. I love the “Fostering Algebraic Thinking” (blue smallish book- do you have this?) type problems and Kriegler’s examples as the MEAT of your Algebra Scholars program. That is what students need and TIME to digest and push forward as they build a foundation that I hope a good teacher can build on in 9th grade Algebra at the high school. I strongly agree with UCLA’s placement and would love if the District as a whole could commit to this (without any funny business on anyone’s part after we all agree to something). I suspect the high school would strongly support this.

  5. My theory as to why many students are unsuccessful at algebra is because they are not yet ready to move from concrete to abstract reasoning. At least not as quickly as the curriculum usually moves them through this transition. I think scaffolding that includes concrete, hands-on when possible, examples would be a big help to these types of learners. Context is key. But not hokey/fakey “real world” contexts. I would rather use a compelling mathematical context than a “real world” context that doesn’t reflect the actual real world.

  6. I agree with the comment above.

    My one request would be a truly solid basis of solving equations of all types: one-step, two-step, multi-step, distributive property, absolute value, variables on both sides, and especially literal equations. I think if you could design those in a way that moves from the concrete to the more abstract as well as hitting them with multiple representations and hands-on activities that it would really help. To me, solving equations is the basis of algebra, especially the big-hitters like systems of equations, linear equations, functions, quadratic functions, etc.

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