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Catching Up in Math is Often Akin to a Stuffing Suitcase

In working with students with special needs on math programming and services, a common and major issue is that the student is behind and there is a tension between filling in gaps and addressing grade level content. Let me unpack this (pun intended).

  • There is no single grade level for math, as is the case for reading. Math progression is more like a web, not a line. For example, if a student can do 5th grade geometry but only 3rd grade level fractions, do we average out the grade level math to be 4th grade? (No.) Do we identify the student as working at a 3rd grade level? (No.) 5th grade level? (No.)
  • Like a suitcase, there is a capacity to the daily time a student has for school services. I often encounter situations in which the services recommended involve the student working on grade level content and catching up on the gaps during support time. If the student has only been learning 75% of the math content each year, he or she needs that support time to help learn the new content to get closer to 100%. There is too much being stuffed into the suitcase. Something has to give.
  • The focus of the services and programming often shifts away from post-secondary plans, which has long term implications as I wrote previously using the falling dominoes analogy.

There are two recommendations I make in regards to addressing the gaps.

  1. Maximize the efficiency of the support time by having the support class focus on the prerequisite skills for current or upcoming topics.
  2. Use triage to shift focus to the priority topics. For example, the parents of a student in 7th grade but working on math from lower grade levels wanted to pursue a math track that would allow the student to go to community college. I mapped out a long range plan (image below) that focuses on algebra as that is the type of math most likely encountered in a math requirement. Here is another plan which was to prepare a student to possibly work in a field related to cars.
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Progress, but in What Direction!?

In the video, Charles Barkley has made great progress getting to Annapolis for the NCAA Basketball Tournament. Problem is, the tournament was in Indianapolis.

For obvious reasons, in special education we frequently discuss and recognize progress. As in the commercial, there can be a lot of progress, but in what direction? Is it moving the student towards postsecondary goals the family has established and will the student be prepared for postsecondary life?

When I work with IEP teams or with families, I look to establish the postsecondary goals and evaluate progress accordingly. Often, I am called in to help when a student is in middle or high school and is years behind in math. With only a few years remaining with support through IDEA, it is crucial that progress be evaluated in terms of a long range plan that gets the student ready for postsecondary life and the student is ready BEFORE leaving high school (or a transition program). In other words, the student arrives in Indianapolis and is there before the game starts.

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Slippery Slope – 3rd Grade Multiplication Word Problems to Slope in Algebra

Top left is a scaffolding I use to help students learn to solve math problems using multiplication (3rd grade). The situations are typically rate problems (e.g., 5 pumpkins per plant or $2 per slice of pizza) although the term “rate” is not used yet. The same concept of rate plays out in high school with slope of a line, applied to real life situations (top right).

These types of problems start in 3rd grade (below, top left), play out in 6th grade (below, top right), into 8th grade (below, middle), and into high school algebra and statistics (below, bottom). I referenced this connection previously regarding word problems and dominoes. This highlights how crucial it is that strategically selected gaps in a student’s math education be addressed in context of long range planning.

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