January 13, 2016

A Day in the Life, Teaching Math to Students with Disabilities

I arrived at my classroom at 7:12 on the dot this morning. That’s the official teacher start time. Sunrise was at 7:11 this morning and I firmly believe that I should not have to rise earlier than the sun so I'm obviously not one to arrive early for school. I smile to see the identity proofs still on the board that my students worked on after school yesterday. Turned on my computer and checked a few emails before the bell rang at 7:24. One of those emails was a request to meet first block today so I checked in with the Algebra team, discovered they were not quite ready to start and figured I could go find out exactly what this somewhat vague string of emails had been about.

It turned out that there is a student in our alternative program which runs in the building who is really struggling with geometry. He has some substantial learning disabilities and the special education teacher working with him needed help figuring out how to modify the curriculum for him. We discussed his goals and history (he’s a junior who hasn’t passed the sophomore state test which he needs to graduate) and then I was able to make some recommendations. I shared the materials that I used with the contained math class (students with substantial learning disabilities where the state test was a major hurdle) as well as the materials that I used with my inclusion geometry classes (students with moderate learning disabilities). Dropbox for work files is really the best thing ever, I can send anyone an entire year’s worth of materials organized into units with the push of a button! However, an entire year’s worth of materials is overwhelming so I got her started with some specific tasks to do and ended with an invitation to email any time and an offer to meet again. I enjoy being at the point where I’ve been in a school long enough that teachers in another program know that I would be a useful resource for the particular problem they are facing. I was especially glad they called because the poor special ed teacher was trying to write all the lessons herself – way too much work!

At 8:10 I make it back to the team meeting. They’ve been planning out the rest of our unit on linear functions. We were problem solving how to help students who are struggling with substituting values into equations (to fill in a table or find intercepts) and I suggested Elizabeth’s star method. We joked/bemoaned that students would end up with two digit numbers if x has a coefficient (2x where x=4 becomes 24) and another teacher said that she requires them to always substitute using parentheses. I had this moment of shock – I did that when we were studying function notation but somehow dropped the parentheses in the intervening months and forgot about them entirely. This is why team time is so great, we can bring something we’re struggling with in our own classroom, share ideas and get new ones or a reminder of something we’ve used in the past. Conversation about the unit wraps up around 8:40 when my co-teacher arrives and I take the opportunity to check in with her for a bit. Then I overhear another coworker mention his upcoming wedding – he got engaged over the summer without telling anyone! It’s January and we have classrooms with an adjoining door and talk every day and I somehow didn’t know this. So I demanded that story and we were all properly excited for him.

8:55 the bell rings. First block is over. A special ed teacher on the algebra team asks me about one of my students on his case load. We discuss his behavior and disability and what to do about his low grades. He's showing some initiative coming after school lately so hopefully that's a trend which will continue! Second block there’s a class in my room (I have a set of iPads in there so they use my room rather than their own room down the hall) so I grab my bags and head down to the library. I pick up a form from the office on the way (professional day request so I can attend an NCTM resources committee meeting in February), make some copies and finish processing my email. At 9:30 I switch over to planning. At 9:55 I transition to grading. I love block scheduling because I can have a solid span of uninterrupted work time to get things done! Some students in my precalculus class know interval notation for domain and range while another group didn’t even fill in the domain and range questions at all. That should be interesting. The bell rings at 10:26 but I sacrifice a few minutes of my 25 minute lunch to finish the pile of assignments I’m grading.

As I leave the library I see my principal talking to someone. I need his signature on that form I just picked up, what timing! Head up to lunch in the second floor faculty lunch. Yup, we still call it lunch even though it’s 10:30. One year I brought oatmeal every day but this year I’m pretending it’s a normal time to eat and have a sandwich. I feel bad for kids who have first lunch on one day but second lunch (at 12:00) on the other day of our alternating block. I can adjust to eating at 10:30 and then having a snack when I get home, but switching off would just be weird. Lunch time depends on the department, so kids in math class during third block have first lunch while kids in English class during third block have second lunch. I chat with a few other teachers in my department about students and parenting and puppies.

Lunch ends and I scurry up the stairs and across the building to my classroom. Most of my students beat me there but I’ve finally got them trained in appropriate waiting behavior (today one kid was pretending to kick the door – that’s major progress since September when it wasn’t pretend). Students pick up their binders and I turn on the projector and pull up the slides. My coteacher greets students and reminds them to get their materials. This is my Algebra Support class, 13 students who are all behind in math upon arriving to high school. We start every class with a couple minutes of skill practice. Today they are given shaded ten frames: they have to write the fraction, simplify the fraction and convert to a decimal. I wasn’t sure if giving them all ten frames would make the decimals too easy but it wasn’t – it was a great opportunity for them to use their calculators and then recognize a pattern. We talked about place value and equivalent representations. This was a great intro to our lesson on slope. I put a few tables on the board and students determined the slope. Then a pair of points. Then a graph with two points. Then I am so confident that I’ve said “y-distance over x-distance” so many times that they’re masters of slope and ready to conquer anything! I set them free to do a scavenger hunt where there are 17 papers taped around the room. Students answer the question at the bottom of the sheet and then find the matching answer on the top of a new sheet, repeating until they’ve made a complete loop. Except they’re all stuck? Uh oh. First mistake: I said rate of change, pattern, y-distance over x-distance… pretty much every word except slope. And this activity only says slope. Second mistake: we didn’t address horizontal or vertical lines. My co-teacher and I move around the room prompting and prodding and having kids draw examples and calculate. I think the scavenger hunt would have been great if the bottom half of the paper just had tables, graphs and pairs of points. However, I used a premade thing and the phrasing of the questions threw off more kids than it helped. I should have looked at it more carefully and kept my population in mind – several of them are working on phonics with the reading teacher, the vocab has to wait until after they’ve had some more experience. Next time I’ll make it myself… Despite the challenges they got some work done and I’ll be more prepared tomorrow.

Bell rings at 12:28 and one class leaves. My next class has 5 minutes to arrive. This one is the contained Algebra class. They all have a moderate learning disability in mathematics (and several other issues outside of mathematics but the math disability is a prereq for the course). We do the same lessons as in Algebra and Algebra Support but they all have the class every day (a few of my Algebra students don’t attend the support block) and there are only six of them so they get much more individual attention. As one kid comes into class he declares he wants to take Street Law. I explain how course selection works and we get into a discussion of the content of the class and if it’s a good idea to run from the cops. I’m silently appreciative for my Twitter feed, particularly the #educolor crew because while I emphasized that being respectful is important, we also talked about how important it is to know your rights. The students in that class come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and with cognitive impairments they’re not going to come across as the most well educated bunch to the untrained eye (even though they’re amazingly smart kids! With really slow processing speeds). They’re definitely at risk for getting taken advantage of and assumed the worst of. Thanks tweeps for making sure that my message had more depth than “don’t do anything to get in trouble.”

We run the same lesson with this class but I’m much more explicit about using the word slope throughout the intro. I also add in a slide on horizontal and vertical slopes. I am thrilled when a kid (the same one who was curled up on her desk on Monday because the stress of a new coteacher replacing the sub was overwhelming) asks, “But why??” when we discover that 5/0 makes the calculator say “error.” We compare 0/5=0 and 5/0=error by looking at 5*0=0 and 0*?=5. One student is positive he can find a number that will make the second equation true. “Is it 5?” What’s 0*5? “Zero.” That’s not 5! “Is it 0?” What’s 0*0? “Zero.” That’s not 5! “Is it 1?” (repeat conversation) “Is it 5?” (repeat conversation) “Is it 0?” (repeat conversation) … “I don’t know.” Me neither! There isn’t a number we know. The calculator can’t think of a number either, that’s why it says Error. The girl who asked “But why??” originally says, “ooh!” and I already feel like whatever I did wrong last block I made up for it with this discussion. At least some kids are leaving today feeling enriched. They still need help with the scavenger hunt but with two teachers for five kids? We manage just fine. During the scavenger hunt one of my precalculus students is hovering outside the door. I go out and he asks what the course webpage is. I tell him (cardonmath.com) and he tells me that he was searching for it and found some other stuff about me “Apparently you’re really important! I had no idea.” It was rather adorable.

2:02 and school is over. One student from last block stays to do some make up work. I find him a packet that needs correcting. Several teachers stick their head into my room "Do we have a meeting today?" We always have meetings on Wednesdays but we got this afternoon off since we have a full professional development day on Friday. One of the teachers comes in to ask about adding a student to my contained class. He's a student I was concerned about earlier in the year (I was in his class covering an adoption leave in September) but he's just now reaching the point where he needs a lot of extra help. We'll look into amending his IEP. Two students from precalculus show up and announce that they’re going to work on their ferris wheels today. The Algebra student is confused and makes some awkwardly funny jokes and my precalculus students are awesome about being nice to him. Everyone gets some work done and finishes around 3:00. I realize that I never put attendance in. For the last several years I had the same coteacher and she always did attendance. I yell at my students for not knowing how to be ready for class when it’s January but I’m just as bad. I pack up and walk out the door at 3:12.

That makes today exactly an eight hour day! I usually leave around 3:45 and always do some work at home on Sundays but I make really efficient use of my prep and am in an awesome district that gives me 90 minutes of prep a day plus my duty is common planning time so I have a manageable amount of work. Tomorrow I will teach three blocks (honors precalculus, algebra and contained algebra) with one prep and 25 minute lunch in the middle. Then back to today’s schedule, alternating ad infinitum (well, for 180 days).


  1. Wow, what a day! Thanks for sharing in such detail (like your mid-lesson adjustments). I'm trying to glean some insight into how to be really focused in the 7:15-3:45 block of time (preparing to cut down on working at home so that after daycare pickup = family time). So awesome that your team time is productive and that you all share materials instead of re-replicating. I wish we had that in our school culture.

    1. Thanks for reading the whole thing! The biggest thing for me is focusing on just one thing at a time. If I think of an email I need to write while prepping I'll write myself a note rather than open my email and get distracted by everything there. I don't have work email on my phone and I don't have notifications for anything turned on, I check things when it's their turn.

      We are so lucky to have 9th grade team time. We spend half our time in the Algebra team and half our time with all subjects to discuss kids and bigger issues. Not every day is productive (we have to give interim exams and spend an excessive amount of time dealing with those) but I should be more thankful that we get any time at all!