Common Core Standards and 21st century skills, with
their emphasis on communication through listening and
speaking, are a good fit for middle grades students who
thrive on interaction.
Case in point: my sixth grade math students were
interested in “doing” math. They didn’t want to just sit and
solve equations, they wanted to socialize, move around,
create, and discuss.
By merging visual imagery and technology in the
math classroom, I engaged them in hands-on problem
solving and small group collaboration. They were more
engaged, more motivated, and better able to express their
learning. My tools were digital cameras, programs and
applications, clickers, and a willingness to let
students communicate with each other.
Assessing and Accessing
I use visual imagery to access and assess students’
background knowledge. For example, with a document
camera, I take pictures of line graphs or bar graphs. I ask
the students what they see, what they think, and what
they know based on the images. Students discuss their
observations, write their ideas on small white boards, share
information with their peers in small groups, and report
to me during class using clickers and after class in their
journals. Based on their responses and reactions to the
illustrations, I determine what my students already know
about graphing and who needs assistance.
Observation teaches me what my students know, what
motivates them, and how they learn best. For example,
Lillian works best when she can discuss her work with Petra.
If I allow them to sit together, they discuss, consider, draw,
and conclude. Porter, however, is never satisfied and wants
to know more, so I give him deeper thinking activities and
have him share his thinking at the board. As he shares his
thinking with everyone, he can take our classwork to
I ask my students to visually illustrate concepts using
Microsoft Word and Geogebra or Geometer’s Sketchpad.
Microsoft Word includes tools to rotate, flip, and slide
images. Students use a photograph or create a drawing
using the “shapes” tool. They highlight the picture and use
the “format” tool to rotate, reflect, and slide. They then use a
“text box” to describe how they manipulated an image.
Geogebra and Geometer’s Sketchpad are Web 2.0
tools that allow students to explore relationships among
angles, line segments, and shapes. Students use these
tools to illustrate their understanding of relationships
and vocabulary associated with their learning and to
communicate mathematical concepts clearly.
For example, in geometry, they illustrate a swing set using
their knowledge of angles, parallel lines, perpendicular
lines, and arcs. They label the concepts and have a ready-made
When students have built an arsenal of knowledge about
mathematical concepts, they create visual applications of
their knowledge: products that communicate
Using iMovie, students create a two-minute video
illustrating a math concept they have not mastered.
Working in teams, they illustrate the concepts using
construction paper; they then add music to enhance
presentations shared with the whole class.
My students also enjoy making brochures, bumper
stickers, or small books of their learning. After studying
an integrated unit on fitness, students might prepare
brochures and write skits about the importance of fitness.
They create and solve word problems that illustrate how
exercise and math are related and then add images,
connecting their knowledge to their world using the
technology that is available to them.
See and Do
Visual images and today’s technology work together to
help students build background knowledge, illustrate
concepts, solve word problems, create learning projects
together, and communicate their knowledge clearly.
Cooperatively creating images and describing them to their
classmates allows students to interact with math and with
each other—motivating the lowest level students as well
as the highest learners.
Nancy Ruppert is middle grades education coordinator at the University of North Carolina in Asheville. E-mail: email@example.com
Originally published February 2012