I recently worked with a student on an online grocery shopping activity – finding ingredients for mac and cheese. We had the ingredients listed in a column on a Google Doc (allows both of us to edit the doc simultaneously) and then he cropped and pasted a photo of each ingredient (see photo below). The goal was for him to identify the total he need and the total cost in planning for actual shopping or to continue with the online shopping. Note: he wasn’t actually buying anything at this point but this was a step in preparing him to do so.

This activity is dense with math tasks and shopping related tasks. The math tasks include the following:

Identify the price (vs quantity of the item or unit price).

Interpret the quantity for the ingredient.

Identify the units (oz and cups)

Convert units

Compare amount in box with amount needed.

Determine how much more is needed, if any.

Compare choices before selecting the item, (Barilla Pasta vs another brand).

To convert units, the “mathy” approach can be used or the student may simply use an app. For this student we chose an online unit converter (see below). This is more complicated that it appears. The student must choose the units and the order (in this case convert cups to ounces or vise versa), distinguish between imperial and US cups, understand that you enter the quantity (the search results in 1 US ounce appearing by default), and then interpret the decimal (keep in mind the ingredient quantities are in fractions).

Life skills math is more complex and challenging that parents and educators may realize. As a result, the planning for developing these skills should begin much sooner rather than later – not to mention the actual logistical tasks of shopping, e.g. finding an item in the grocery store.

Often we adults engage students with closed-ended questions and then consider this as having a conversation with the student. I witnessed this first hand in a high school consumer math course I co-taught. The adults sat with the students the first day after December break for a conversation about their break. The questions were consisted of and were similar to the following. “Did you have fun?” “Did you eat a lot?” For some, like my son, this is appropriate. For many others, we are offering low hanging fruit that does little to move them forward.

Ask open-ended questions that prompt the student to engage in critical thinking such as analyzing and evaluating – below, courtesy of Jessica Shabatura. Work this into IEPs and 504 to have teachers implement this. For example, I asked the students what they liked about break. Then I asked why they liked it. Here is an example of me questioning my son, who does not have a disability, when he was maybe 4.

For students with a disability, performance does not align with ability.

In my view, there are 3 different categories of performance factors: the disability, gaps in achievement, and secondary characteristics. (Percents are contrived to provide a visual representation.)

To address these secondary characteristics, which manifest as a set of behaviors, I suggest a focus on shaping with a token board.

Money is intuitive for many students, even when the underlying math is not. For example, I often find that students who do not understand well the concept of Base 10 place value do understand $10 and $1 bills. With this in mind, I created a virtual scaffolded handout that builds on student intuitive understanding of the bills through the use of $10 and $1 bills to represent regrouping. Here is a video showing how I use it.

In the photo below, at the top, a $10 bill was borrowed into the ones column. The reason is that $7 needed to be paid (subtracted) but there were only five $1 bills. In the photo below, bottom, the $10 bill was converted into ten $1 bills. On the left side of the handout, the writing on the numbers shows the “mathy” way to write out the borrowing.

Once the student begins work with only the numbers, the $10s and $1s can be referenced when discussing the TENS and ONES places of the numbers. This will allow the student to make a connection between the numbers and their intuitive, concrete representation of the concept.

Often education and special education focuses solely on content. In turn, the content may focus only on steps and facts to memorize as opposed to ideas and concepts.

A challenge for many students during k-12 education then in post-secondary life is being an independent, self-sufficient learner. The adults supporting them often focus on short term success at the expense of long term success in terms of independence.

I propose shaping the independent learning process early and often. An activity I use is completing jigsaw puzzles.

With guidance, completing a puzzle can activate 3 processes of learning: critical thinking, mindfulness, and perseverance. By having a strategy of identifying the side pieces of the puzzle, the student is analyzing pieces which is critical thinking. Paying attention to the shapes of pieces in mindfulness. Continuing to try different pieces when pieces don’t fit is an act of perseverance. Start with fewer pieces and focus on the process, then use increasingly more pieces of the same puzzle before moving on to another puzzle.

Math is a language with words and other symbols that also makes sense of the world around us. We consume and know more math than we realize or allow ourselves credit for.

When buying the latest iteration of an iPhone, we may call forth algebra. How much will you pay if you buy an iPhone for $1000 and pay $80 a month for service? Well, that depends on how many months you will use this iteration before moving on to the next iPhone. The number of months is unknown so algebra gives us a symbol to represent this unknown number of months, x (or n or whichever letter you want).

Just as there is formal and informal English (or other language), we can engage algebra formally or informally. You don’t need to write an equation such as y = 1000 + 80x to figure out how much you will pay. You can do this informally, compute 80 times 10 months + 1000 on the calculator. Then try 80 times 12 months etc.

Math provides us a means of organizing and communicating ideas that involve quantities like the total cost for buying an iPhone.

The difficulty in learning math is that it is often taught out of context, like a secret code. In contrast, a major emphasis in reading is comprehension through meaning, such as activating prior knowledge (see below).

In fact, math absolutely can and, in my view, should be taught by activating prior knowledge. My approach is to work from where the student is and move towards the “mathy” way of doing a problem.

Without meaning, students are mindlessly following steps, not closer to making sense of the aspects of the world that involve numbers.

Counting out the total value for a set of coins can be very challenging for students who struggle with money.

Here is a video showing how to use a WORD document table a former colleague and I created to support students in a life skills class. The video shows how this handout is used but does so with a virtual version the can be completed on the computer (see image below). Here is a link to the virtual document.

To help students learn how to measure with a ruler, I focus on minimizing the number of tic marks on the ruler at first. The image below shows an excerpt from a WORD document with a halves ruler that I use and an instructional strategy. It also contains a quarters and an eighths ruler that students can slide around the WORD document as shown above and in a video explaining this artifact and how I created it.

This is useful for distance learning as well as in class. Here is a link to the WORD document with the rulers shown in the video.

I use the following method as a entry point for double digit numbers.

The photo below shows 2 packs of Popsicle sticks counted as 10 each, followed by single sticks counted as 1 each. The student counts on from 20, with the use of the scaffolded handout (photo at bottom). The handout focuses only on counting on from 20 and shows a photo of 2 of the bundles of sticks. Similar handouts involve counting on from 10 or from 30 etc.

By engaging in the actual counting, the student learns the 10s by doing. This would be followed by counting on from each 10 without the handout.

The use of Popsicle sticks is useful for 2 reasons. First, a bundle of items like shown below is more concrete than the rods for Base 10 blocks. Second, pulling packs of sticks apart of bundling 10 sticks together is an act that is concrete for students and ties into their prior knowledge regarding the grouping of objects (e,g. pack of gum).

The graphic organizer below is used to show the student the steps for addition. It also addresses the concept of addition (which I have addressed previously) as an act of pulling “together” two parts to form a whole.

The student is prompted to move the first part (set of coins in this case) to the number chart. This can be completed with 1 to 1 correspondence or with subitizing (identifying the number of items without counting). Then, the student is prompted to move the second part while counting on, e.g. 7, 8 etc. (as opposed to starting from the left and counting from the first coin: 1, 2 etc.). The chart scaffolds the counting on and allows the student to see the total as a magnitude.

It is important to first teach the students the “rules of the game”, i.e. how to use the graphic organizer. To do this have the student simply move the first part to the number chart then the second part. The student can also be prompted to state the addition problem (written at the top). When the student is fluent with these steps the counting on can be implemented.

The next step would be to replace the coins with the symbolic representation, numbers.