Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Is This A Purple Elephant?

"Is this a purple elephant?" or "I know what to do, this is a purple elephant!" are comments often spoken throughout the year in my classroom.

Visitors look at me and my students like we are alien visitors from Mars when they hear comments about purple elephants and seeing the look of excitement on my student's faces.

Mnemonic devices and stories are tools that I frequently use to help my students remember and learn new things.

As a student who struggled learning in classrooms due to distractions, I took my notes and books home and "taught" myself the skills.  Some of the things I did were to use mnemonic devices to help me remember and repeated drill out loud to help me.  It drove my family crazy, but I knew the consequences of not being on the honor roll!  Going to school and being successfully was our job, in no uncertain terms. 

 When I began teaching in an urban district, the majority of my students who were put in my class were two or more years behind.  I was instructed to teach them on "grade level".

One of the first "grade level" math topics addressed is order of operations.  I do this so as a class we can work on addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.  I also know that a vast majority of my students can't add, borrow to subtract, don't know their multiplication facts, and can't do division with two-digit divisors.  The first couple of years, I tried using the mnemonic phrase of "Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally".  My students couldn't remember it and it was of no use.  One of the first questions I had to answer is what does please excuse my dear Aunt Sally mean?  They didn't mean in Math, they meant literally. 

One day following class I heard two of my top students talking in the hall.  The conversation was as follows:

Student 1:  Who says please excuse anybody!  And naming someone Sally wouldn't happen because it is lame!

Student 2:  Yea, I know.  I don't know anybody named Sally and why would I want someone to excuse her if I did?  What did she do?  She would have to ask them to forgive her, not me!

These girls' comments made the light come on in my head.  I went home and went on a search to try to find something that would help with order of operations that would make "the light come on" in their heads.  I searched forums and asked questions for months.  Suddenly someone shared with me the phrase they used.  I thought it might work.

I told my students we are going to review and try order of operations again.  I heard a collective sigh and a oh no!  I taught them the new phrase and we had a poster contest to illustrate it.  The rules were it had to have a descriptive picture, the phrase, and what each word stood for.  They loved it and all of a sudden they all began solving problems successfully.  When mandated testing time arrived, the supervising teacher in each of their testing rooms told me after the test the kids kept talking about the purple elephants problems and how easy they were.

Over the years I have continued using purple elephants to teach order of operations.  I now have a poster contest that they can enter.  A judge chooses the "best " poster.  The winner then reduces their poster to regular paper copy, and I make copies for all my students to put in their math notebooks in the reference section.

This past year I had a group of students who couldn't understand it, even with the help of purple elephants.  They just didn't get it.  One day at lunch, they asked me to tell them another story.  They loved stories.  They could always remember every detail, could tell the story in order after hearing it one time, and loved to hear the same story over and over.

Another light bulb moment for me!  I'll write a story dealing with purple elephants going to school!  When I finished they loved it!  They applauded and begged to hear it again.  (They even caught things like the math teacher's name,  Ms. Takes!)

When adults came in, they would ask them if they knew the purple elephant story and of course they didn't.  They would then tell me that we needed to read the story again so they would know it so they could help someone who didn't know how to work the problems.  When students came in from other rooms for time out, my students would tell me we needed to watch the story again so they could learn what to do since they were missing out on learning in their class.    

Purple elephants empowered my students by letting them discover that they were capable of learning and that I believed that they could. 

The seventh grade Math teacher came to me a couple years ago and wanted to know why the students out of my room would always say something elephants and could work order of operations problems.  They would remind each other these are purple elephant problems, smile, and work them in the correct order.  I just laughed and told him Aunt Sally went on vacation and the purple elephants came to school. 

Purple elephants not only teach my students order of operation problems, but also remind me as teacher that I have to listen carefully to my students, and the continued need to adapt to help each and every student learn as much as possible

I am sure you are wondering what the phrase is.  Before going any farther I want to tell you that I used this phrase because I knew my students would need to know how to work with exponents later in the year.  At the beginning I tell them that exponents will come later in the year, but we are going to learn where they go now so we will know.

The phrase is Purple Elephants May Destroy A School.  When they write it in their notes, I always have them underline as I did.  I do that so they will know that may destroy and a school go together and when we work on purple elephants problem it is whichever one comes first. 
May Destroy-Multiplication/Division
A School-Addition/Subtraction

I did see a phrase that I thought was great if you don't need exponents.  It was Pizza Makes Daddy Act Silly.  My only thought was eventually they would need to learn exponents.

If you have any phrases that you use to help your students and you are willing to share them, please post them in the comment section below.

Thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to read this.  Have a great day!

Until next time,
Vintage Teacher

The story I wrote to share with my students is in my Teacher Pay Teachers store.  Click on the slide above to go to my Teachers Pay Teachers store.

(Added note:  I now have a Tic-Tac-Learn game for Order of Operations available in my Teachers Pay Teachers Store and at my Teachers Notebook Store.)



Loved your story! I teach college remedial math, and I use many of the same techniques that you do. I use the phrase Pale Elvis Meets Dracula After School for PEMDAS. For some reason, my students can mentally visual this better than the Aunt Sally phrase!


I use many of the same techniques you use with my remedial college students. I use the phrase Pale Elvis Meets Dracula After School for PEMDAS because they can mentally make a picture of that - much better than with Aunt Sally!


I love it!! :) Definitely using the elephants the next time I need to teach order of operations. Do you have any of the poster examples from your students to share to?

Vintage Teacher

No, I don't. They made them on poster board. Then I had other teachers judge for the winner. I asked the winner to redraw it on a regular piece of paper, then I put a help sheet on the back of the drawing and make everyone a copy for their math notebook.

Some years the drawings are great and some years they aren't the greatest, but I always do the same thing.

I have been off on medical leave since February and someone chose to take all my files and every thing out of my room that belonged to me, so I no longer have copies of anything or things I purchased to use with my class for all these years. I am really bitter about it. Sorry.


I teach second grade, so I do not use the exponents or parentheses yet. But I have used this phrase for division steps: DMSC- Does McDonald's Serve Cheeseburgers?

Vintage Teacher

Thanks for sharing Thea! I will have to add that one to my list.


I used the story in class today and had so much fun retelling it each block. By the end of the day I was being so silly that I told my last class (advanced math class) that it would be funny if we made this into a movie. I picture it as an old Black & White with very exagerated characters and emotions. I'm asking for permission to use your scrip to make this film.

Post a Comment

Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I love comments. :0)

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...