Math Stories

Wednesday August 29, 2012

By Alexis Jones

A train leaves the station at 9:00 am, heading East at 60 miles per hour. At 9:30 am, you begin running toward the train at 5 miles per hour. At what time will you and the train collide?

Remember problems like this? 98% of us had nightmares about these story problems as children and teenagers. I was a math major for two and a half years of college and I still have trouble solving these! And our students are no different.

However, well-written story problems are the practical side of mathematics. Figuring out how long that bookshelf should be, or the slope of a plane's wing, or even how much vanilla to put in the muffins when you double the recipe...this is the stuff of our real lives, both personal and professional. So helping our students solve real problems is vital.

One way to get students to enjoy the process a little more is to have them write their own problems for others to solve. Even the youngest writers and mathematicians will be able to construct something like the following:

Ann went to the store. She bought 5 apples. Her brother bought 3 apples. How many apples did they have altogether?

Simple, huh? When modeled, it really can be. Your students will need to know that they first have to set up a scenario. (Ann going to the store.) Then something has to happen that involves a quantity - apples, candy canes, packs of toilet paper, whatever. (Ann bought five apples.) This quantity has to be added, subtracted, multiplied, or divided by another number. (Her brother has three apples.) Then they have to ask the actual question, "How many apples did they have altogether?" which is a fantastic opportunity to talk to young children about common math vocabulary. "Altogether" means you are almost certainly adding two numbers. "Difference" means you will probably subtract. As the students get older and the problems get tougher, they'll encounter multi-step problems that will be more complex, but with this foundation, word problems will be much less painful than most of us remember.


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