Friday, May 5, 2017

Dividing small by big (fraction division & pattern blocks, part 2)

Last time, I related the tale of how, with a single fifth grade arithmetic problem, Cathy Humphreys shook my confidence in my math abilities to the core and then rebuilt it again from the rubble, better, faster, stronger, because that's how she rolls.

(Do you know why 1 ÷ 2/3 = 3/2? Are you sure?

Are you?




1 ÷ 2/3 is tricky because, unlike, for example, 3/2 ÷ 1/4, the divisor does not fit evenly into the dividend. But once you understand the nature of the problem--what fraction of the unit in question comprises the leftover bit?--you can probably more or less make your way through most problems where the divisor is at least smaller than the dividend.

So hold onto your pantaloons, mateys; we're about to go off the map a bit. Here there be dragons, ie, problems where we are asked to divide a SMALL fraction by a BIGGER fraction.


Tuesday, May 2, 2017

That time Cathy Humphreys taught me to divide fractions

Despite my background as a high school teacher, I've gotten deeply interested in grade 3-5 math in the past few years, particularly all the bits related to number, operations, & algebraic thinking and how they weave together to create the ramp that ultimately gives kids access to formal algebra.

But it was not always this way! As a college math major filling out applications to masters & secondary credential programs, I definitely saw myself as a high school teacher, much more interested in the complexity and rich structure of Algebra II and trigonometry and calculus than in the usual middle school topics. And I *certainly* had never gone back to closely examine my own conceptual understanding of the foundational mathematics we learn in elementary school. Who wants to teach fractions and decimals when you could be initiating kids into the wonders of trigonometric functions??



So, I got into a secondary program, started student teaching Algebra I, & learning all the magical things they teach you in Curriculum & Instruction (ie, "methods") class about how kids make sense of ideas like variables and functions and data analysis over time and what it really means to understand all these things anyway. It was mystifying and terrifying and amazing, and in addition to learning how to teach, those experiences also unlocked for me an entirely new dimension of understanding. It was exhilarating ("Who knew math could be even MORE AMAZING??) but also a bit panic-inducing ("How the HECK am I supposed to get kids to understand it THIS way?!?"). All in all, though, I was starting to feel pretty darn good about my content knowledge.

And then, one day, Cathy Humphreys came to class.

She came to teach us about fractions.