Remember when mathematics seemed relevant? Today’s technological society makes the days of mental math seem archaic. Carol Nowakowski, from the Lake Havasu Unified School District, tells us why we should continue to make math meaningful.


One day, I was being observed. I felt confident in my performance, until my principal said to me, “Carol, it was a great lesson. You have the students’ attention, key vocabulary, elicited 80 percent-plus, but where was your relevancy?”

Puzzled, I replied, “Relevancy? Its math, it’s all relevant.”

That was not the answer he wanted.

I can’t help but protest for the sake of math. We all need to know how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide. My students must ascertain this information to pass next year, and the next, to graduate high school, and eventually get a job — that makes it relevant!

The dialogue above is an example of multiple post-evaluation conversations with my principal, year after year. It wasn’t until my own two children began to press through school, coupled with the onset of new standards, when I realized my relationship with math is much different than my students’.

As a math teacher, who was also the daughter of a math teacher, I came to realize that not every child uses d=rt on a road trip, or estimates how many pounds of aluminum cans a single trash bag could hold, and if we had five bags…

To me, everything I experienced had a relationship with math. Therefore, it was hard to imagine the question of relevancy in regard to the subject. But, once I figured out not everyone viewed math the same way I did, I realized I had to approach my lessons, students, and their parents differently.

First, I started to learn about my students’ favorite hobbies, sports, games, etc. This helped me understand what they valued as important. Then, I used this to gear my lessons toward their interest. For example, most of them played baseball or softball, so while teaching mean, median and mode, we used their own (or similar) stats and made the terms purposeful and relevant to the students.

With the constant change in our math standards every three to five years and the increased access to technology, I began to realize families were becoming a lot less interactive with one another (and their environment). Instead, they’re increasingly interactive with their personal devices. Families are still traveling, but instead of finding things outside the car to subdue the “How much longer?” questions, children are paying attention to videos or personal devices. With this observation, I began to give nontraditional assignments that elicited parent participation.

For example, students were to practice their understanding of translations terms, including slide, reflection, and rotation. Their assignment was to locate an example of each. Then, they were asked to submit a picture and description from objects they located in their household. The fact that they had to locate items within their residence made the words more relatable.

But it doesn’t have to end with a child’s homework assignment. I also encourage parents to support math by sending home ideas for families to incorporate every day activities that involve the subject.

Fellow teachers, allow your students to get to know more about you. I charge you not to be afraid to use examples from your own life. For example, the other day while sitting in Taco Bell, I overheard a dad say to his young son, “We have $12. If we split it between the four of us, how much would each get?” This can happen everywhere! I challenge you, parents and teachers, to take the bill or receipt from any purchase and ask similar questions.


Want more ways to impress meaningful math upon your students? Register now for Groupworthy: Connected Thinking in MathematicsThe four-day event is sure to help your students remember math well beyond their years in the classroom.


  • Sandy Merz says:

    I no someone who says about the only math anyone has to do in social settings anymore is calculating tips. Now you don’t even have to do that any more with receipts that have them calculated for different percentages.

    But more to your piece, I’ve read recently that the trick is not to teach kids, “You use this techniques for these kind of applications,” but to look at their lives and say, “Can I use math to solve this.”


    I took the approach of ensuring relevance in math with 3D geometric figures and linked my students to city planning and architecture. They used this knowledge to create GeoCities that were imaginative yet logical. People were impressed because they are in 2nd grade. I saw it as a reminder of the natural potential of the human mind.

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