There's always certain topics that make me a little nervous to teach. Big topics. Those topics that you know your students need to understand, not just to be successful on this chapter or this year, but for all math every year after this year. It's a big responsibility to be the first teacher to expose them to a new idea, solving strategy, etc. It's sort of like laying the foundation on a house that you know others will need to build upon and the pressure to build a strong foundation can sometimes feel overwhelming.
One of these topics for me this year is completing the square. I am especially anxious every year to teach this because it's a topic that I didn't understand at all when I was in school. It wasn't until college when I fully understood why we complete the square, when we complete the square or mathematically what the heck we're doing when we "randomly" add this "magic number" to both sides of the quadratic equation. I want to make sure that my students aren't just memorizing a bunch of steps but rather understanding the entire process with the end goal the focus of every step.
After some good teaching days we were ready to practice but it was apparent that the level at which students were grasping this new idea was dramatically widespread. I needed an activity that would allow them to practice at a level that they felt comfortable, but would also challenge them to keep working on harder problem types. BOOM! Traffic Light Activity. Here it was...
The idea behind this activity is to create a variety of problems at different difficulty levels. Student choose the level they want to work at with the flexibility to change as needed. The cards are placed in my favorite pouches and spread all over the front of the room. It's organized chaos.
For this activity, green cards were worth 1 point and included completing the square problems where a=1 and the answers were nice rational numbers. Yellow cards were worth 2 points and included problems where there was a GCF involved (a is NOT 1) but still had rational solutions. Red cards were more challenging problems that sometimes had a GCF, but did NOT have rational answers, requiring them to simplify their answers in radical form.
Students were told they needed to complete 8 points worth of work and they could be done for the day. Students got to choose how they wanted to earn their 8 points, with a mixture of easy, medium, and hard problems types. You could do more easy problems, or less hard problems. The choice is yours! The nice thing about a number like 8 is that you can't just do all green (there were only 5) so it forced students to at least try one or two of the harder ones to achieve 8 total.
Many students got a little excited at the idea of the less work option, but when they realized they weren't quite ready and needed to go down a level, they just walked up to the front of the room and tried a level easier. There is lots of flexibility to allow students the ability to self asses where they are at, and change as needed with the goal of working up to the red cards.
I wrote the answers on the back of the cards so that students could self check as we go. Our class culture involves almost daily conversations about how the answers are not the only end goal. Understanding how to arrive at the correct solution and being able to articulate a variety of solving methods with regards to efficiency, visualization, connections to previous concepts etc. is the bigger goal. When the answers aren't secret, students don't obsess over copying them with out doing the work. They know that I look for evidence of student thinking, not just answers.
There are so many ways to incorporate a traffic light activity in math content! This semester I have a student teacher again (TALK ABOUT A BLESSING) and she was so helpful in creating all these problem types. Seriously, can I have a student teacher like her every semester!? I am so lucky to have won the student teacher jackpot this semester! Boise State sure produces some top notch future educators.