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Fly Activity for Graphing Ordered Pairs

I created this fly activity to introduce my students to the history of the coordinate plane and give them much-needed practice graphing ordered pairs.

In college, I was always taught to begin my lesson plans with an anticipatory set.  I always struggled with these.  I couldn’t quite remember my teachers ever using them when I was in school.  How in the world would I be able to come up with one of these for every lesson that I teach?

picture of fly on back of student chair.

I wish I could say I have mastered the anticipatory set.  I haven’t.  Most days, the thought doesn’t even cross my mind.  But, I’ve certainly become more creative.  My goal is that when students enter my classroom that their curiosity is piqued.  What are we doing today?  Why are there tennis balls on your desk?  Why are the desks arranged differently?  Or, today, “Why are there flies everywhere?  That’s just weird.”  To this, I responded, “Flies?  Sorry, I haven’t noticed any.”  

picture of fly on air conditioner.

The flies were kinda hard to miss.  There were twenty of them.  And, that was the point.  I wanted my students to be wondering what today’s lesson was going to be about.  

picture of fly hanging on calculator poster.
picture of fly on coordinate plane dry erase board.
high school math classroom with pictures of flies taped around room.

Have you figured it out yet?  I don’t know how true this story about Descartes and the invention of the coordinate plane is, but I don’t really care.  I like the story, and I had a blast sharing it with my students.  I told them that this story was from long ago, long before they had anything like electricity.  “Do you mean this story is from 19 years ago?”  Ummm…electricity had been invented nineteen nears ago.  

I pieced together my version of the story from several different versions I found online.  Rene Descartes was a sickly child.  He was smaller and weaker than his peers.  His father sent him off to boarding school.  The school master was worried about Descartes.  His theory was that if Descartes slept more, he would become stronger.  So, Descartes was forced to remain in bed until late in the morning.  He would lay in bed and ponder life and all things scientific and mathematical. 

This habit carried over into his adult life.  He often stayed in bed until almost noon.  One day, Descartes noticed a fly on the ceiling while he was laying in bed.  He watched it buzz to and fro, to and fro.  And, he started to wonder.  What if I wanted to share the exact location of the fly on my ceiling with someone else?  After thinking about this for sometime, he determined that the location of the fly could be determined with precision if you knew the distance of the fly from two walls.  From this epiphany, the idea of the coordinate plane system was born.  Descartes never actually graphed on a coordinate plane, but he made it possible.  The end.  

“Oh, so that’s why there are flies on the wall.”    

Next, I brought out my new favorite algebra teaching tool – my shower curtain coordinate plane.

shower curtain coordinate plane in floor of classroom.

When I pulled out my coordinate plane after discussing the invention of the coordinate plane, my students had incredulous looks on their faces.  I’m surprised that I can do anything nowadays that will still shock them.  “Did you make that?”  Yes.  They, of course, wanted to know what it was made out of.  

I laid the coordinate plane in the floor and instructed my students to get out their interactive notebooks.  We created a foldable about ordered pairs and a foldable about the parts of the coordinate plane.

After taking notes, my students were ready to do some coordinate graphing on their own.  I invited the students to look around the room and pick their favorite fly  “But they’re all the same.”  “I don’t care.  Just pick your favorite fly.”  I pulled up a random name generator that I have saved in my favorites that I have already typed my class rosters into.  I let the computer randomly pick a name.  That student was tasked with taking a fly down from the wall.  On the back of each fly is an ordered pair to graph.  The student had to stand on the origin and walk through the process of graphing the point on the coordinate plane.  The next person chose another fly from the wall and graphed it.     

My students had a blast!  We ran out of time for all the students to have a turn, and some of my students insisted on staying after the bell rang to have their turn.  Of course, there were some students who acted like they were too cool to stand on the coordinate plane and graph.  Nobody made any comments about it being too elementary.  I loved it!  

Even though the coordinate plane isn’t the sturdiest or toughest, I think it stood up fine today after being used by three sections of Algebra 1.  I’m definitely looking forward to using this new resource throughout the rest of this year.  

Free Download of Fly Activity for Graphing Ordered Pairs

Fly Ordered Pairs (PDF) (1479 downloads )


Tuesday 10th of March 2020

Hi! These are rally amazing resources. Would it be possible for you to send the attachments through email please! Thank You!

Sarah Carter (@mathequalslove)

Wednesday 24th of June 2020

Send me an email at mathequalslove (at) gmail (dot) com


Tuesday 19th of November 2019

These foldables are so great, I use them year after year. I'm so excited that this year I'm going to read the story referenced above and make a grid on my floor for the students to graph on :) Thank you so much for the inspiration!


Tuesday 10th of January 2017

I cannot access the link to the PDF file of the foldables. Could I possibly have those emailed to me? Thank you so much!

Sarah Carter (@mathequalslove)

Wednesday 19th of April 2017

I realize this is super late, but I can still e-mail them if you send me your e-mail address, Jennifer!


Sunday 6th of November 2016

The story reminded me of a book I got for my son at the used book store. Here's a link to the description: It's a fictional version, but if you have the time, would probably take about 7-8 minutes to read (or you could skip pages and leave things out) for a cute hook. Thank you for all of the tips and resources!!


Friday 30th of September 2016

This is INCREDIBLE. You are so creative, I love you!

Sarah Carter (@mathequalslove)

Tuesday 4th of October 2016


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