Making Algebra Relevant

I have found the jackpot for relevant, current hooks to use in a math classroom. is a news site that presents data with statistical analysis that is interesting and easy to understand.  The contributors clearly understand the numbers they are reporting.  I read "Where's the Beef?"  by Eric Benson and thought it had a great hook for freshmen in Algebra 1.  The article was about 1,121 missing steer calves from the Braum family's 38 square mile ranch in Texas.  The mystery of these missing livestock intrigued me right off the bat.  There are thousands of great rate problems in this article related to cattle populations, price of beef and number of thefts of livestock over the years.  I used this lesson at the beginning of our Writing Linear Functions unit. To begin the lesson, I asked students how much they'd be willing to spend on a hamburger or ribs.  I then showed this video about how a 13 year old in Texas is cashing in on people's obsession with good brisket.
Following the video, students read the article and then answered these questions.   I made this a differentiated lesson by letting students choose one of 3 problems in three different sections of the assignment.  My intention for the first question was to make this story relate-able.  Coming from the Midwest, we don't have a good sense of how much a loss $1.4 million is, how big a 38 sq. mile ranch is, or how much 500,000 lbs of cattle weigh.  The 2nd section is where we got to the heart of linear functions.  Students could choose whether to calculate the rate of change and write a linear function for the population of cattle in the US over 7 years, the price of brisket over the course of 7 years, or the number of livestock reported stolen within a 4 year period.  They then had to answer questions about domain and make predictions based on their linear functions. Finally, the third question was an opportunity to be creative.  They could explain how they thought the cattle were stolen, make a list of how the Braum's could recover their loss, or draw their own cattle brand.
As a math teacher, it was fascinating to watch students read.  I loved the recall conversations about the article, because it appealed to students who don't usually volunteer to answer questions.  It also generated more dialog than shorter responses to math problems.  I appreciated the third section on my worksheet because it allowed me to see more student personality.  Their thoughts and ideas were clever and creative.  It makes me want to draw that side of them out more when we're problem solving with Algebra.
A lesson with such a huge focus on reading made me realize how much I don't know about how to teach active reading. I don't know how to ask good questions about what students understood about the article.  That is something that I want to learn more about, so that I can incorporate more lessons like this one in my curriculum.  The only change I would make to this lesson is not to teach it on October 1st - World Vegetarian Day.  I did a whole beef lesson on a day set aside for vegetarians, oops!