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Teaching Opinion

A Marriage Made in Math Class

By Laurie Wasserman — September 10, 2008 7 min read
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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 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, special education setting. 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 kids 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. Now it occurred to us that we could help each other even more.

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

Here’s how we did it.

Step One: Preparing 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, modifications, and have the added benefit of another math teacher in the classroom. Tim also sent home a written letter with a signed consent request.

My next task was to prepare my kids. I told them we’d be joining another 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: Setting Up the Room

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 each, including calculators, markers, and colored pencils. 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 that all handouts and homework assignments would be 3-hole punched. The kids would each have a math binder, 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.

Step Three: Finding Time to Plan

The key to success in a model like this 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 importantly, 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 discussed ideas while he drove the New Jersey Turnpike to visit his parents. We constantly e-mailed each other sample activity sheets and project ideas. If we were lucky, we managed to meet face-to-face at lunch or before school once a week.

Step Four: Setting Roles and Class Routines

Here’s how our roles have broken down: When the kids come into 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 sit with kids who might be confused and in need of clarification. It works out wonderfully, because we’re helping all the kids—my special education students and anyone else with a puzzled expression. Meanwhile, Gina serves as a scribe for our physically disabled student and gives 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 do the presenting and he does the 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 IEPs

Each of my students has an Individual Educational Program. Whenever Craig and I plan a test or quiz, assign a project, or give a homework assignment, we have to have all my IEPs in mind. If necessary, I might decrease the amount of homework a student is responsible for, particularly if it involves a lot of independent reading or writing. When it is time to grade the work, we keep two gradebooks.

We use 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 requires more writing from his regular students about why they chose the number they did. In this project, we expect students to make presentations to the class. To increase their comfort level, Craig gives the kids specifics about what to share: a real-life connection to the number; math facts related to the number; and information that could reveal the number.

All of our students take the same tests and quizzes, but I make sure the kids with IEPs continue to have the tests read aloud back in our own classroom, as needed. I make calculators and multiplication charts available and have a scribe on hand for those whose IEPs require 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. So Craig uses math terms (e.g., benchmarks) while referring to the sports page in our daily newspaper. When we are learning about fractions, decimals, and percentages, we “keep the stats” while we do free-throw activities using foam balls and borrowed classroom wastebaskets. We give the students fraction and decimal cards as they race to various benchmarks on the stair landings, then put themselves in order, trying to beat the stopwatch. We group students into teams as they rotate through test-review activities. Craig also creates wonderful “strategies sheets” that both instruct and entertain the kids as they do class investigations and prepare 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. Some of Craig’s students were able to serve as peer coaches and explain concepts in language 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. This year our entire school is expected to have full inclusion for math, thanks to the 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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A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 1990 edition of Teacher

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