# ZeroSum Ruler (home)

## Blogging on math education and other related things

### New (free) ZeroSum ruler – for teaching addition with negative numbersSeptember 30, 2012

Below is a new version of the ZeroSum ruler.  This one needs no hardware to construct, just scissors and glue.  You can download, print and use this proven tool right now by clicking on the picture, which will bring you to the PDF file that contains 2 ZeroSum rulers.

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### calculators KILL negatives! (uh, raised to even exponents, that is:)May 17, 2010

What’s negative 2 to the fourth power?  16?  -16?  If you put “-2^4″ into the TI-83, you get -16.  But we know that (-2)(-2) = 4 and (-2)(-2) = 4, and (4)(4) = 16.  So why does the calculator give us -16?

This post is no doubt for the high schooler and not for someone addicted to the )( buttons on the calculator like I am.  I parenthesize.  It comes from a fear that something will go negative that should be positive.  I have reminded my students more times than I can count to parenthesize, so many times, in fact, that I am more than sure that most tune me out as soon as they hear the first syllable.  But still the negative raised to an even number sneaks past the best of ‘em.

The evil negative base reared its ugly head again today when I graded papers on the geometric sequence an = a1 • r^(n-1) where:

an = the value of the nth term

a1 = first term’s value

r = ratio of change (ie “doubling” would be 2)

n = the terms placement (ie: 5th term would be n = 5)

“Find a7 if a1 = 5 and r = -2.”  The answer I or course got more than the correct answer was ” -320″.  What should the answer be?  “320″.  The problem should be written out first as: 5(-2)^(7-1) to make the process clear.

At least no one gave -1,000,000 as an answer.  There’s still hope!

### overkilling negatives?May 8, 2010

I know the ruler seems a bit overkill for a simple subject like adding positives and negatives, but I teach 11th grade in Boston and it’s the biggest stumbling block for even my students taking my advanced algebra class.

The problem is that kids are taught a “noun-verb” way of solving problems like “-12 + 7″. They are told to find -12 (noun, static number) and count up 7 spaces (verb, movement) to the right to see what number they land on. This is fine in a classroom with a number line taped to the desk, but it doesn’t teach the kids how to think about the numbers and a lot of kids will get this problem, and ones like it, wrong. It only gets worse with “x + 12 = 7 (solve for x)” or “y + 12x = 7x + 3 (solve for y)”. It’s the same problem over and over again, just disguised.

The problem with the number line and the “noun-verb” way of solving is that it’s not the way we think. It’s not even the way we are taught in school to solve these problems. In the Boston 7th grade curriculum is a book called “Accentuate the Negative” where the very first page of text has a caption over a kid’s head that reads something along the lines of “I owe my dad \$4. I have -\$4″. So this business of “owing” comes into play very early.

If I owed you \$12 (-12) and I only paid you back 7 (+7), how much would I still owe you? Asked like this, it’s a simple problem. You’d count up from 7 until you got to 12, knowing that the answer would be in “owe”, or negative. In school however, the kids are told to start at -12 and count up 7 spaces. This is completely backwards from how we think.

So to get to my ruler…. The ZeroSum ruler allows a kid to find -12, find 7, fold the ruler in half and count the space between the two numbers’ absolute values. This is what we do when we are finding out how much someone owes us, and this is really the way we think. In time, and to answer your question about what a kid would do with numbers beyond -25 and +25, a kid would start to see the relationship between positives and negatives and that if you “owe” more than you “pay” (if the negative is further away from break even (zero) than the positive) then the answer will take a negative sign. But it’s really the space between the absolute values we are counting.