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What is the Distributive Property Anyway?

Updated: Jan 22

When I started teaching middle school math, the distributive property lessons were always ones I found myself reteaching. It was one of those lessons that I knew I had to improve - I could reteach the distributive property for a week, but I didn't have time for that. I needed to find a way to connect their interests and schema (background knowledge FTW ๐Ÿ™Œ ) to our new topic - the distributive property.





I say a new topic, but in reality, the distributive property shows up in a few grades before middle school. Sixth grade is just the first time they're seeing it in a form with variables.


I would start with the vocabulary - what does the word distribute mean? I'd have students pass out things around the room, showing this is what it means to distribute. This was great and all, but I needed to go deeper.


What else gets "passed out" besides papers in a classroom? Food in a drive thru! Yes - fast food became the core of my distributive property lessons. Students became the "passenger seat checkers" before we "pulled away from the window" - checking to ensure that all 'food' was accounted for. Combine this with the fact that multiplication is simply repeated addition, and my students became distributive property gurus.


All of a sudden, my students were rocking the distributive property. It was like a flip had switched - not only for their understanding but for my understanding as the teacher of how to teach this concept.


What used to be a concept that I was apprehensive about teaching quickly became a highlight of the unit. I started LOVING my distributive property lessons. It became one of the concepts that my students were able to teach to each other.



I started with visuals of fast food in parentheses and the number of people ordering outside the parentheses. In these distributive property scenarios, everyone always ordered the same thing.


Depending on the class, I'd have students draw out the entire order, or start right away by substituting the picture for a variable. French fries became f, drinks became d, and so on.


Then, we would add up all of the like variables. Students quickly realized they could just multiply instead of having to write out the amount of each order.


Students loved creating their own stories about different restaurants and orders.


From there, we'd move into our notes. I'd show students two ways to solve distributive property problems: repeated addition or multiplication.


These notes took less than 10 minutes as a mini-lesson, and then students were off practicing with whiteboards as a class.


I could talk about whiteboards all day - read more about that here!


After a few rounds of whiteboard practice, we'd transition into the distributive property matching activity. Students would complete this in partners, groups, or by themselves depending on their (or my!) preference.


To save time, I'd print the distributive property matching activity on fun cardstock and laminate it. I'd have these sets ready to go in envelopes and our paper passer (read: distributer) would distribute the envelopes to groups.


Set the timer on the board with the directions and we were ready to go!


I could walk around, listen to conversations, and jump in where necessary.


Sometimes I'd have students come up with their own distributive property problems on a notecard and simplify on the back. From there they'd switch with a partner or their group and create a story depending on the expression at hand. Certain classes would do this at the end of class if we finished early.


The following days would have a distributive property question or two as the Do Now warm up, and I would spiral in problems throughout the rest of the unit. No longer was I constantly re-teaching the distributive property. Now, I was simply asking how many people were ordering food and what were they ordering.







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