Monday / April 22

Student-Led, Real-World Math for Distance Learning

No matter how you are teaching–remotely, hybrid, or face-to-face–your students have a plethora of unique, real world examples of mathematics all around their homes and neighborhoods. They just may not recognize it!  Student-Led Math Show-and-Tell is a simple activity that provides students the opportunity to apply the mathematics that they are learning to their lived experiences, regardless of where their formal learning is taking place.  

How The Activity Works

Assign a math topic you want to focus on and ask students to find an object that relates to it in their world. The students either take a picture or draw a representation of that object, and write about how it relates to the math topic. The structure of the activity creates a space for students to share their hobbies, interests, and culture and it is applicable to all grade levels. It also provides you as the teacher with a variety of images about your students, which can not only engage more learners but also reduce planning time by using their images throughout the unit.

The four examples below show how teachers at different grade levels have used Student-Led Math Show-and-Tell to relate mathematics to the real world, build community, and reduce planning.  

In a Primary Classroom

Ms. Graf’s first graders are learning how to measure with standard and non-standard units.  She wants her students to see that measurement is all around them, even in their homes. She asked students to take a picture of an object in which measurement is important and include a ruler or non-standard measurement tool in the photo.  Then, rather than use textbook story problems, she plans to use the student submitted images or drawings as the context for story problems throughout the unit.

Here are some examples students submitted:

Matryoshka stack inside each other.  They are very tiny.  If you want to make them, you need to know the height of each doll to make sure there is enough room to fit inside the next one.


When I make bracelets for my friends, I have to measure to see how long they are when they are stretched out.  They need to be 6 inches or else they will be too tight.  Also, grown ups need longer bracelets because their hands are bigger.


My Pikachu stuffy is five and a half Pokemon cards tall.  

In an Intermediate Classroom

Beginning in third grade, students calculate and estimate area and perimeter in math class, but there are also many examples of area and perimeter in their homes, backyards, and communities. In this lesson, Ms. Patel asked students to find examples of area and perimeter in their world.  She asked them to take a picture or make a drawing, describe what the object was, and identify both the area and the perimeter in their image. 

This is my garden.  The wood around the edges is an example of perimeter. The strawberry plants are in the inside which shows the area.  There are some peppers, kale, and tomatoes that grew from last year and came back this year. 

After students submitted their images and descriptions, Ms. Patel created word problems that were used in class that next week. This example is aligned to the content standard: Students will calculate the perimeter of rectangular figures, while also incorporating real world examples and connections to student interests.  

Textbook Problem: 

Find the perimeter.

Ms. Patel’s problem:

Gina has a square garden that is 4ft x 4ft.  How much wood does she need to go around the perimeter?

Because students had relatable and real world examples of this concept, they were able to conceptualize the mathematics better than when calculating with only abstract shapes and numbers.

In a Middle School Classroom

Mathematics is filled with rich and specific vocabulary.  At the beginning of the year, Mr. Wong, a sixth grade teacher, identified 30 of the most challenging vocabulary terms in the curriculum.  He assigned each student a vocabulary term and had them provide a picture example from somewhere in their home or surrounding and describe the term in their picture. As new units were presented throughout the year, he asked the student to whom a term was given to describe the term as it related to their image. Going forward, whenever the word came up, Mr. Wong called on the student expert to help the class understand the term. This activity not only builds each students’ visibility and agency as an expert, it also builds a sense of community through shared ownership of ideas and language. Here is an example of the term intersecting lines

I found intersecting lines on my Valentines day project that I did for scouts.  The red yarn crosses over other pieces of yarn, which is like intersecting lines. It was hard because you had to hammer the nails in a heart shape and they kept moving when I hammered them.

In a High School Classroom

As early as seventh grade, mathematics standards ask students to relate physical objects or situations to graphs. In this lesson, Ms. Jacobs, an algebra teacher, asked students to find something that could hold liquid and graph the height of the water related to the time it took to fill it with water poured at a constant rate.  These pictures provided the teacher with a glimpse of students’ culture alongside real world mathematics.  

 This is a vase from Sardinia, Italy, where my family is from.  If you were to fill it with water at a constant rate, the graph would look like this:

This activity also provided the teacher with 95 images that she then used going forward as a quick warm up for students to sketch these graphs.  This efficient and real-world math routine required little to no planning yet provided a variety of unique and rigorous opportunities for students to analyze and create sketches of the mathematical situations.

Student-Led Math Show-and-Tell offers richness for many reasons: 

  1. You can use these images for more efficient planning and connect the curriculum to students’s lived experiences.
  2. It provides an opportunity for students to notice and investigate math in the world around them.  
  3. It helps to foster community amongst the class and can be a source of ongoing math talk throughout the year.
  4. You can use it in any setting, whether students are learning remotely or face to face. 

You can find more ideas for implementing Student-Led Math Show-and-Tell at a distance here.  How can this activity help your students tomorrow?

Written by

Dr. Theresa Wills is an assistant professor of mathematics education in the School of Education at George Mason University, where she works with in-service mathematics specialists and preservice elementary and secondary teachers. Theresa has taught synchronous online classes and webinars since 2010 and researches teaching practices that are adaptable to the online environment. She is a former classroom teacher, and math coach who still volunteers weekly in K–12 classrooms. She is the author of the forthcoming book Teaching Math at a Distance, Grades K-12: A Practical Guide to Rich Remote Instruction.

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