Talking Algebra with a Teen Driver #tmwyk

ridingThe richest conversations that I have with my kids often take place outside of math homework. They take place as they happen in the real world. The other day I was driving my niece around and she just happened to make a back handed comment about how slow I was driving. It was exactly 32 miles per hour, this distance between Ennis and Dallas.

Me: If I continued to drive at this rate without stopping, how long would it take me to drive to Dallas?
Niece: Probably 5 hours
Me: Really? How many miles are between Ennis and Dallas?
Niece: like 32
Me: What rate am I traveling now?
Niece: Slow
Me: Seriously?
Niece: I don’t know. What do you mean by rate? If it’s how fast you are going, you’re driving slow so your rate is slow.
Me: Maybe…Ok, let me change the question. How do you know how slow I am going?
Niece: You’re going 32 because that’s what the speedometer says.
Me: 32 what?
Niece: 32mph
Me: Do do you know what mph means?
Niece: (thinks for a few minutes) miles per hour?
Me: Yes! So, if I continue to travel 32 miles per hour, meaning stay AT THIS RATE, how long should it take me to get to Dallas?
Niece: I told you earlier….probably 5 hours
Me: What does “miles per hour” mean?
Niece: How many miles you go in an hour…
Me: So, if I travel 32 miles per hour, how many miles will I drive in one hour?
Niece: (thinks for a few minutes) 32?
Me: And what about two hours?
Niece: 64
Me: What about 3 hours? 10 hours?
Niece: 96, 320…Why are you asking me math questions?
Me: So, again…If I continue to travel at 32 mph and Dallas is 32 miles away, how long will it take me to get to Dallas?
Niece: (thinks for a few minutes…laughs) Ohhh 1 hour…That’s what that means? You should have said it this way before!


Much later in the day, I decided to pick her brain again.

Me: Now, you know that I am not going to drive to Dallas at only 32 mph. However, I will drive 65mph until we get to Wilmer and the speed limit changes to 60mph. What if I asked you to make a chart, graph and equation explaining our trip? Does any of this relate to any concepts that you learned in Algebra?


1. Auntieeeeee!!!!! Do you ever turn this math off?

2. Yes, I can make a chart. That would not be just one equation because your rate changes. The graph would not be just one straight line, it would shift slightly lower because you went from 65mph to 60mph.

3. I remember talking about this in Algebra during class because YOU WERE MY TEACHER so since I forgot about it for a while, I guess that you will need to speak to my teacher. (grins and dodges pillow tossed her way)

4. Auntie, when I got home earlier, I looked for a video about this on youtube. Have you seen this?

Reflecting as a Parent/Teacher

When I taught Algebra 1, I always talked about the math of driving before we went into the specific elements of the lesson. I found that doing this helps students connect to something that they do everyday…ride in a car or drive. I am never surprised at the number of students who miss this basic connection between driving rate and time. This is a conversation that can start when kids are young and learning to say…”Are we there yet?”

When my niece reminded me that I taught her Algebra, it didn’t bother me at all that she did not remember. I tend to think that she was more frustrated with my slow driving than thinking about the math of it because the rest of her connections were spot on and she had to have had a foundation in order to get to that point.

In addition, I am happy that she found the STEMbites video because whether she knows it or not…another conversation is coming.

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