Strategy to Individualize Instruction

It is difficult to individualize instruction in a whole class or small group setting. I created and taught the curriculum for a Consumer Math course at the high school where I teach. For a class of 10-12 students, all with an IEP, I developed an approach that allowed me to individualize the instruction for each students.

In the photo below is an example of a folder set up I used with the students in Consumer Math. Each student would have a dedicated folder, kept in the room and updated daily. The smaller paper shows the individualized agenda. The other paper shows an example of how the folder can be used as a resource. Student computer login information, accommodations like a multiplication table or notes can be secured inside the folder. The agenda would be changed out each day. (In case you are wondering about the label in the agenda, “Math Group 4.” This particular folder was used in a special education training session for teacher candidates.)

individualized folder


Tagged , , , ,

Introduction to Equations – (Meaning Making)

This is a meaning making approach to introducing equations. I will walk through the parts shown in the photo in the space below this photo. (A revised edition of this handout will be used in a video on this topic.)

intro to equations

First I explain the difference between an expression (no =) and an equation (has =). An equation is two expressions set equal to each other (21 is an expression).

intro to equations definition equation

I then develop the idea of a balanced equation and will refer to both sides of the see saw as a prelude to both sides of the equation. I also focus on the same number of people on both sides as necessary for balance.intro to equations balanced vs unbalanced

At this point I am ready to talk about an unknown. Here is the explanation I use with the photo shown below.

  • I start with the seesaw at the top. The box has some guys in it but we don’t know how many.
  • We do notice the seesaw is balanced so both sides are equal.
  • This means there must be 2 guys in the box.
  • I follow by prompting the students to figure out how many guys are in the box(es) in the bottom two seesaws.
  • Finally, I explain that the number of guys in the box is the solution because it makes the seesaw balanced.

intro to equations definition solution

There are multiple instructional strategies in play.

  • Connection to student prior knowledge – they intuitively understand a seesaw. This lays the foundation for the parts of an equation and the concept of equality.
  • Visual representation that can be recalled while discussing the symbolic representation, e.g. x + 1 = 3
  • Meaning making which allows for more effective storage and recall of information.
Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Videos Making Algebra Accessible

Below is a screen shot of a video in a series of videos that provide instruction on algebra topics. The videos are designed to make algebra more accessible for almost all students.

screen shot relations video

The presentations include the following instructional strategies

  • A focus on conceptual understanding (not just teaching steps)
  • Connection to prior knowledge
  • Breaking the math topics down into “bite-sized” pieces (chunking)
  • Color coding
  • Making the math relevant

The videos can be used in the following ways

  • Differentiation for students who need an alternative presentation
  • Initial instruction for students who missed instruction
  • Initial instruction as part of a class, e.g. flipping a classroom
  • For use when a substitute is covering a class
  • Intervention based instruction
  • Part of math support services (especially for special ed teachers who are not well versed in algebra topics)
  • Homework support

The videos include a link to the handouts used in the presentation. Additional practice worksheets will be included as well.

NOTE: this is only a sample, with more samples to follow. Please share feedback or ask questions.

Tagged , , , ,

Trick for subtracting integers

I have algebra students, in high school and college, who struggle with evaluating expressions like 2 – 5.  This is a ubiquitous problem.

2-5 problem

I have tried several strategies and the one that is easily the most effective is shown below. When a student is stuck on 2 – 5 the following routine plays out like this consistently.

  • Me: “What is 5 – 2?”
  • Student pauses for a moment, “3”
  • Me: “So what is 2 – 5?”
  • Student pauses, “-3?”
  • Me: Yes!


I implemented this approach because it ties into their prior knowledge of 5 – 2. It also prompts them to analyze the situation – do some thinking.

Tagged , , ,

Busy Engagement vs Intellectual Engagement

Owls are symbols of intelligence but the purported reasons are based on the appearance of awareness and the deft hunting skills. It is claimed that the appearance and skill sets are confused with actual wisdom.


I find a parallel between the perceived wisdom of the owls and the perceived learning of students. Through my years in education I have seen teachers praised for their student centered activities. The students may be energetic and on task by an activity which is often considered a touchstone for learning. What is often missing is independent assessment to determine actual learning.

Once I was covering a class for a teacher widely praised for his activities and multimedia activities. In the class I covered the students were taking a test. It was clear that the majority of the students were hesitant about their performance. Several were looking around, one pulled out a phone and a couple looked at other people’s paper. Very few were locked in on completing their test.

I am not suggesting that multimedia or student centered activities are ineffective. My point is that there is a perception that such activities are inherently effective and reflective of actual learning. There is a difference between being intellectually engaged and being busy. The owl deftly executes action and skill but that does not indicate higher level functioning. Conceptual understanding requires more than simply being engaged by activity. Hopefully this is food for thought.

Tagged , , , , ,

Example of Using Support Class to Support Current Math Content

I have posted on how to effectively provide support for current math topics. Here is an example (below) of how support can focus on both the current topic and prerequisite skills.

For example, on the 22nd in this calendar the current topic is solving equations. The steps for solving will include simplifying expressions and may involve integers. The support class can address the concept of equations, simplifying and integers which are all prerequisite skills from prior work in math.

examples of support class prerequisites

This approach allows for alignment between support and the current curriculum and avoids a situation in which the support class presents as an entirely different math class. For example, I recently encountered a situation in which the support class covered fractions but the work in the general ed classroom involved equations. Yes, equations can have fractions but often they do not and the concepts and skills associated with the steps for solving do not inherently involve fractions.

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Basic Skills Older Students

A widespread problem at the secondary level is addressing basic skills deficiencies – gaps from elementary school. For example, I often encounter students in algebra 1 or even higher level math who cannot compute problems like 5÷2. Often the challenges arise from learned helplessness developed over time.

How do we address this in the time allotted to teach a full secondary level math course? We cannot devote class instruction time to teach division and decimals. If we simply allow calculator use we continue to reinforce the learned helplessness.

I offer a 2 part suggestion.

  1. Periodically use chunks of class time allocated for differentiation. I provide a manilla folder to each student (below left) with an individualized agenda (below right, which shows 3 s agendas with names redacted at the top). Students identified through assessment as having deficits in basic skills can be provided related instruction, as scheduled in their agenda. Other students can work on identified gaps in the current course or work on SAT problems or other enrichment type of activities.
  2. Provide instruction on basic skills that is meaningful and is also provided in a timely fashion. For example, I had an algebra 2 student who had to compute 5÷2 in a problem and immediately reached for his calculator. I stopped him and presented the following on the board (below). In a 30 second conversation he quickly computed 4 ÷ 2 and then 1 ÷ 2. He appeared to understand the answer and this was largely because it was in a context he intuitively understood. This also provided him immediate feedback on how to address his deficit (likely partially a learned behavior). The initial instruction in a differentiation setting would be similar.

2018-12-20 11.20.25

Tagged , , , , , ,

Introduction to Imaginary Numbers

The topic of imaginary numbers is one of the most abstract and therefore difficult math topics to teach in algebra. Here is how I introduce it to students (emphasis that this is only an introduction).

0110190730_2 (1)

I write 1, 2, 3… on the board (see photo above) and explain to the student “at some point in life you learned to count on your fingers, 1, 2, 3…” These are called the Natural numbers.

toddler counting

Then I explain, “later you were told that no cookies means ZERO cookies. Zero is a new type of number. We call 0, 1, 2, 3… the Whole numbers. You learned a new type of number.”

This continues, “A little later on you were told you could have half a cookie and so you learned about a new type of numbers called fractions.”

This continues with negatives. Then I explain that all these number types can be found on the number line. We call the set of all of these numbers Real Numbers.

I conclude with “Now we have a new type of numbers that are not found on the number line. These are called imaginary numbers. Just like before you had number types you had before and now you have a new one to learn.”

The point of this approach is to help the students understand that a new number set simply builds on previous number sets. Also, the students have encountered this situation before.

Tagged , , , , ,

Visuals Aid Memory

This research has major implications for math for students with special needs…but some of us already knew this!

brain memory

Tagged , , ,

Juggling Gaps and New Content

In math, many students with special needs fall behind. What results is a Catch-22 in programming and services. If the student is provided extra time to work on the gaps, he or she likely falls behind with current content. If the student is provided extra time to receive support for current topics, the gaps are not addressed

In both cases the extra support time can actually be counterproductive.

  • The focus on gaps likely results in the student working on different math topics which in effect means the student has TWO math classes – just what a student with math anxiety doesn’t need.
  • The focus on current topics means the student is trying to learn math topics for which he or she doesn’t have the prerequisite skills needed.

I recommend identifying the prerequisite skills for a current math topic and address ing these skills concurrently in math support or during the summer. For example, I used a Common Core coherence map (top photo below) to identify Common Core prerequisite standards for the standards a student faces in her upcoming school year. Then I listed these with each grade level standard (bottom photo below). The prerequisite skills can be identified using a task analysis approach as well. Screenshot 2018-06-12 at 6.03.52 AMScreenshot 2018-06-12 at 5.45.22 AM

This approach allows for a systematic approach to fill in gaps and to prioritize when they are to be addressed. When implemented effectively, the student can see the immediate benefit of the support time – it helps them in math class. Even better, the support teacher can match instruction and work with what is covered in math class.

Tagged , , , , , ,
%d bloggers like this: