“It is not just accommodating learning… It is how your student learns…”
The Common Core State Standards may have changed more than the recommended content and rigor for our students. It has also challenged our tried and true instructional strategies due to the emphasis on critical thinking and problem solving. We cannot give students low-level tasks for drill and practice and think we are allowing them opportunities for high-level thinking. We have seen this conflict of old and new instructional approaches evidenced in math classes across CCSS states where teachers may have included new, higher-level content but it is still being taught in the same drill and practice way. In the new CCSS math classroom, students need to be creating the problem themselves- is that truly happening?
How is this relevant to Special Education Teachers and Related Service Professionals you may ask?
The same question above can be posed for a teacher, are your students creating the problem themselves? I think there is an intense need for special educators to share and collaborate with math teachers to help build rich, high- level learning experiences for our students. In classrooms where the math rigor has been accelerated, even a minimal attempt to create a student-centered approach to learning math, for a student who is being served in special education that rich lesson may be replaced with a drill and practice, low critical thinking activity, worksheet or some other simply stated accessible format due to our students learning needs. What does that mean for our students?
In a conversation recently at my district with our math interventionist, she suggested to the team that it would be best if she could just have a two-day workshop with the K-12 special educators to simply teach them math! Why you may ask? Because special education teachers are not comfortable with the math content but are still trying to accommodate it for their students. If you are uncomfortable with high-level math content, are you able to think of other innovative ways to teach it? I suggest that special education teachers and TVIs should be accommodating math materials AND collaborating with math teachers to help them differentiate the material for our students. It is not enough to provide tactile math manipulatives, we must also help general education teachers learn ways our students learn best. We need to be co-teaching, collaborating, and helping bridge gaps in learning. It comes down to the essential question, how does your student learn? You would take student learning needs into consideration when teaching a specialized lesson or out in the community working on functional academics, but once we encounter the learning accommodations needed in general education classrooms we put down our “teacher hat” and make accommodation suggestions. We may also find ourselves playing triage with our student’s failing work because they are drowning in academic content that they don’t understand. Before we take part in a meeting that suggests ways to accommodate math or potentially find a lower level math class that we think fits our students needs, we need to ask ourselves if our student truly had enough opportunity to learn math in the way they learn best? If not, then we need to provide that collaboratively with the general education teacher. If we are uncomfortable with the high-level math content, ask the general education teacher to explain it to us, so we can brainstorm ideas together.
When looking at the Standards of Math Practice, we can generate ideas about how to build math into our ECC practice and how to emphasize the unique instructional needs of our students that can serve as a collaborative conversation starter for TVIs and math teachers.
Standards for Mathematical Practice
Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.
Our students need to create their own problems. We need to collaborate with math general education teachers to work backwards through a lesson to ensure our students have the same opportunity and “aha” moments as their sighted peers. We can practice this with our students in our one-on-one time with them by simply asking them to tell us what they think the problem would be…
Reason abstractly and quantitatively.
In math, we use tools to help us reason abstractly and quantitatively, such as calculators and graph paper. Does our student know how to use their tools innovatively? Have we practiced using the accessible mathematics tools with our students or simply provided them? Does the general education teacher know how a math tool being used by our student to accommodate their learning needs works? Does our student know how to explain their problem using any UDL tool that best meets their needs and participate in math conversations about how they reasoned and completed the problem?
Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.
Have we observed our student in their math class? Are they involved in any math conversations taking place? Could we work with our student outside of their math class to model ways we would construct arguments and critique reasoning? For example, depending on the K-12 level of your student, in the Expanded Core Curriculum areas of independent living and self-determination, we could include a conversation related to current events or any other math related news to construct a viable argument. How many statistics do we see in our newspapers that, when analyzed, do not really tell us the information suggested. This is a key piece of the CCSS Standards of Practice for Math, it is emphasizing the need to help students think for themselves and not just accept something as fact without verifying the information.
Model with mathematics.
Does your student know how to use specialized tools to model math equations? Does your student know how to lay out a problem in concretely, abstractly, or representatively? Could your student create tactile models describing how a math problem works?
Use appropriate tools strategically.
This standard for practice is where accommodation truly meets instruction. It is more than simply providing the accommodation needed, we have to instruct our students how to use their tools and ensure that general education teachers have an opportunity to learn how it works as well. Susan Osterhaus provides comprehensive instruction and demonstrations on math tools for students who are blind or visually impaired.
Additionally, when collaborating with the general education teacher, it is important to check in on how well the tool is working. This past week, in an opportunity I had to work with one of my student’s Algebra teachers, we discovered that the format of the digital document sent by his talking calculator was confusing. We are now problem solving ways he can format his work so it is easier for her to grade and give advice about his problem solving.
Attend to precision.
Are we ensuring our students are turning in correctly formatted math work? The next step in developing a student who is college or career bound is to ensure we have checked our work and it is correctly formatted. What are the ways we can differentiate this for our students and have we done enough direct instruction on polishing the finished product when using specialized materials for students who are served in special education?
Look for and make use of structure.
What are the ways our students are doing this? If we do not know, then we need to ask how they are thinking through and reasoning with math, so we can help build a strong foundation in using accessible materials to conduct high-level math reasoning.
Look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning.
When thinking of math patterns and structure, we could use tactile examples from nature to help build awareness that the real world reason we are doing all this complicated math reasoning is to better understand how systems work. We have an essential collaborative role to play with our general education teachers to help think outside the box on materials and real life examples to help build this awareness for our students who are not seeing or understanding the examples being projected on the board.