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Best Practices: A Marriage Made in Math Class

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One day not long after school began last fall, my 6th grade colleague Craig and I were comparing teaching notes. We soon discovered we had a shared case of mathematical melancholia. We both teach the Connected Math Program in our school. Craig works in a regular education classroom, and I’m in a small-group setting with special education kids. Craig said he was struggling to reach that portion of his students who were weak in basic skills. Meanwhile, I was attempting with mixed success to help my self-contained group reach the “proficient” benchmark on our state’s all-important math test.

Over the years Craig and I have often traded lessons, tests, and project ideas, so we already had an informal partnership. Three summers ago we enjoyed the chance to co-teach “Math Camp,” a program designed to help incoming 6th graders make a successful transition to middle school. We share a similar teaching style and a commitment to meeting the needs of all students in any way possible, even if it means breaking loose from tradition.

After brainstorming for a bit, we decided to approach our principal, Tim, about piloting a math class where we would co-teach and include all of our students. Craig, we said, would bring his expertise in math strategies and the creative ideas he's utilized in the past with Connected Math. I’d bring my special education skills and ability to work with kids who are struggling and may need extra one-on-one attention. Tim quickly gave us his blessing and support.

Here’s how we did it.

As part of a partnership, publishes this regular column by members of the Teacher Leaders Network, a professional community of accomplished educators dedicated to sharing ideas and expanding the influence of teachers.

Step One: Prepare the kids (and the parents)

Tim asked that during our fall Open House, I explain the change in setting and get feedback from the families of our special education students. The majority of the parents were thrilled that their children would receive the same services, accommodations, and modifications and have the added benefit of another math teacher in the classroom. Tim sent home a written letter with a signed consent request.

My next task was to prepare my kids. I told them we’d all be together in a combined class on a trial basis. They were accustomed to learning math in Room 312, a small setting where they were supported by two wonderful paraprofessionals. Room 309, across the hall, would be bigger and busier.

“You’ll still be able to take all your tests and quizzes in room 312,” I promised. “You can still have the tests read aloud, use calculators and multiplication charts, and have extra time if you need it.” I explained that there would be time to work on interesting projects during our combined class, and we’d offer extra help during lunch or after school whenever anybody felt confused. The kids were satisfied, and Craig and I sat down to plan our first lesson.

Step Two: Set up the room and organize the kids

We began with a seating plan, ensuring that “his kids” were seated with “my kids” so they became “our kids.” We put them in groups of four with a supply area in the middle of the grouping: calculators, markers, colored pencils, etc. We tried to make the groupings as heterogeneous as possible, mixing kids who were stronger in math with those who were weaker.

To help with organization, we decided all of our handouts and homework assignments would be 3-hole punched. The kids would each have a math binder of their own, and my paras, Lorraine and Gina, would keep an updated master binder to serve as a model for the kids to follow. We also created “hook books,” which are simply math notebooks where students write about their problem-solving approaches.

To kick off the class, Craig would often have them do a practice activity or answer review questions in the hook book. We also devised a “binder test” to make sure each binder was organized and no work was missing. (Kids who are absent would learn to compare their binder to the master, then pull and complete any make-up work from an accordion file that contains all tests, quizzes and handouts organized by date.)

Step Three: The critical co-planning

The key to success in a model like ours is co-planning. We both needed to review and strategize the lessons we wanted to teach, discuss how we would address individual student needs, decide who would run off what, when to give tests, when to start projects, and all the other details that make or break good instruction. Most important, we needed to define the roles each of us would assume once we were in the classroom “live” with kids.

But when would we plan? I often teach reading comprehension and study skills during Craig’s regular planning period. He has classes during mine. Thank goodness for technology. Frequently, we chatted by cell phone while Craig was en route to his coaching, sales, or tutoring jobs. Sometimes we even co-planned while he drove down the New Jersey Turnpike to visit his parents. We constantly e-mailed each other sample activity sheets and project ideas. If we were lucky, once a week we managed to meet face-to-face at lunch or before school.

Step Four: Setting roles and class routines

Here’s how we decided to define our roles: When the kids come in to the room, Craig starts with homework review or a hook book activity, while I check the actual homework to see if the kids are prepared. While Craig finishes up the review, Lorraine and I circulate about the room and quietly sit with kids who are confused and need clarification. It’s wonderful, because we’re helping all the kids—my special education students and anyone else with a puzzled expression. Meanwhile, Gina is serving as "scribe" for our physically disabled student and giving us any extra help we need.

Then it’s on to the lessons and activities. The majority of the time Craig presents the lessons, and I’ll ask him clarifying questions if I see the kids are confused. Sometimes I’ll jump in with a strategy and write it on the board while he’s presenting, and sometimes I’m presenting the lesson and he’s jumping in. Every teacher knows how difficult it can be to keep track of every student’s “learning status” in the middle of leading a class. Having two pairs of teacher eyes always monitoring facial expressions, body language, and desktop activity is a tremendous advantage.

Step Five: Keeping track of IEP requirements

Each of my students has an Individual Educational Program that must be followed by the teacher. Whenever Craig and I planned a test or quiz, assigned a project, or gave a homework assignment, we collaborated with all my IEPs in mind. If necessary, I might decrease the amount of homework a student was responsible for, particularly if it involved a lot of independent reading or writing. When it was time to grade the work (whether it was a homework assignment, project or test), we kept two gradebooks.

We used the same project rubric for all students, but I might weigh the various categories slightly differently. For example, in our Special Number Project (in which students chose a “secret” number and use it to work through some investigations), Craig would require more writing from his regular students about why they chose the number they did. In this project, we both expected students to present to their classmates. To increase their comfort level, Craig gave the kids specifics about what to share: state a real-life connection to your number; give two math facts about your number; have us guess your number by sharing mathematical information about it.

All of our students took the same tests and quizzes, but I made sure the kids with IEPs continued to have the tests read aloud back in our own classroom, as needed. I made calculators and multiplication charts available and had a scribe on hand if their IEPs required it.

Step Six: Getting the kids moving and shaking

Craig is really still a middle school kid at heart. He coaches part time and most of our students play or enjoy sports (living in Boston, it’s almost in our blood!). So Craig used math terms (e.g., benchmarks) while referring to the sports page in our daily newspaper. When we were learning about fractions, decimals, and percentages, we “kept the stats” while we did free-throw activities using foam balls and borrowed classroom wastebaskets. We gave the students fraction and decimal cards as they raced to various benchmarks on the stair landings (we have 3 floors in our school), then put themselves in order, trying to beat the stopwatch. We grouped them into teams as they rotated through test-review activities. Craig also created wonderful “strategies sheets” that both taught and entertained the kids as they did class investigations and prepared for tests.

So how is “married life” in room 309? Well, the students have forgotten to ask when the trial math class is going to be over. My kids often put Craig’s name on their homework instead of mine (how cool is that?!). They’ve been exposed to more math, and they’ve learned in a setting with all kinds of students, including some who struggle more than they do. Some of Craig’s students were able to serve as peer coaches and explain concepts in language other kids understand. My kids and I have worked a lot on being organized, so we helped his students improve those skills.

Our test scores, by the way, quickly went through the roof and they’ve stayed there throughout our pilot program. Next year our entire school is having full inclusion for math, thanks to the tremendous support of our principal and director of special education. They’ve seen what’s going on in Room 309—and they’ve declared the marriage a complete success.

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