Betsy DeVos & the Rights of Students with Disabilities

This blog rarely veers into discussions of national education policy, but after the events of last night’s confirmation hearing for the Secretary of Education nominee, that time has come.

The nominee, Betsy DeVos, is an advocate for school choice (pro and con). Essentially, she believes that federal education dollars should follow students to the schools they choose to attend (public, private, religious, charter, etc.) and not directly to the schools through state funding. Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado summed up some of the pitfalls of school choice, “There’s no practical difference between being forced to go to a terrible school and [choosing] between five terrible schools.” As a teacher of students with disabilities in a private institution, I understand that not all public school settings are appropriate for every student. However, I am personally against the dismantling of public education in favor of privatization.

One aspect of the hearing that struck me, as an advocate for students with disabilities, was DeVos’ lack of understanding of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). When asked about it directly by Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, this was the exchange that followed:

Should the rights of students with disabilities be left up to the states? Should we be taken back to a time when students with disabilities were excluded from education in favor of exclusionary special classes or, worse, institutionalization? The correct answer to that question, if you were still on the fence, is no.

However, evoking such a dark time in our country’s past, such as Willowbrook, may seem hyperbolic, but when a nominee for the highest education job in our nation displays a staggering ignorance of a federal law which protects the rights of an often neglected population of students, well, nothing seems too unrealistic to consider. We must consistently grapple with the follies of the past in the hopes of not repeating them.

IDEA is important because it explicitly protects the rights of students with disabilities to a free and appropriate education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment where all stakeholders, especially the students and their families, give input on how to best meet the student’s educational needs. To mistake or be unaware of this federal law is unforgivable. Period. And as Senator Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, whose son has cerebral palsy, said “It’s not about sensitivity, although that helps. It’s about being willing to enforce the law so that my child, and every child, has the same access to high-quality public education.”

UPDATE [1/19/17]: Senator Maggie Hassan discusses IDEA and Betsy DeVos with Chris Hayes on MSNBC

 

An Instructional Routine for “Which One Doesn’t Belong?”

We are currently studying geometry. The standards for geometry list one important understanding to develop before 4th grade, “Reason with shapes and their attributes.” If you click through the link you can read more about the specifics, but the activity that gets students reasoning about shapes and their attributes the most, in my opinion, is Which One Doesn’t Belong? This activity allows students to share their thinking about shapes and their properties without the fear of being wrong. Why? Because every answer is correct as long as you can justify your reasoning! You can read more about how I implement “Which One Doesn’t Belong?” in my class and you can use it for more than just geometry.

But this post is about how I used this activity as a basis for an instructional routine. Continue reading

Beat the Back to School Blues…Play a Math Game!

Coming back from winter break can be hard. Everyone is sleepy, unfocused, and daydreaming of the holiday gifts that await them at home after school. And that’s just the teachers!

But seriously, getting back into the groove of school is hard for everyone, and can be especially hard for students with disabilities who thrive on clarity of expectations and routine. Creating the perfect situation for students and teachers to transition from a holiday break can be a challenge. So this year, we played games!

When visitors come into my room and see “games” on the agenda they assume that means “free time.” That, however, is not the case. As Van De Walle, Karp and Bay-Williams write, “A game or other repeatable activity may not seem to incorporate a problem but it can nonetheless be a problem-based task. The determining factor is whether the [game] causes students to be reflective about new or developing mathematical relationships. Remember that it is reflective thought that causes growth and therefore learning” (63).

math-game-tips

Tips from Marilyn Burns (Source)

Marilyn Burns describes why games have been a staple of her teaching repertoire, “Games can motivate students, capture their interest, and are a great way to get in that paper-and-pencil practice.”  Further, in their book, Routines for Reasoning, Kelemanik, Lucenta, and Crieghton relate that learning experiences for students with disabilities must be: authentic, meaningful contexts, multisensory, language rich, and full of opportunities for multiple practice. Games provide all of these features. They are by definition, competitive. Competition is, itself, a meaningful, authentic context. Most games are inherently multi-sensory. While playing games students must communicate with each other, thus creating language rich environments. And finally, most good math games make students do as many (or more) problems as they would on a paper-and-pencil worksheet.

Since my students have a wide range of academic abilities, it is necessary that we have access to a wide range of math games. Here are the math games we play, and please let us know which ones you love so we can play them too!

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The First NCTM Innov8 Conference: A Reflection

It has been a busy end to the first trimester, so this is the first time I’ve had to sit down and reflect on NCTM’s first Innov8 conference, held in St. Louis a couple of weeks ago. The focus of the conference was “engaging the struggling learner.” I’ll leave it up to you to define that term on your own, because it seems to encompass quite a vast swath of educational labels (e.g., “at risk,” “difficulty,” “intervention,” “tier 3,” “disability,” etc.).

As a special educator and advocate for students with disabilities, this conference was a breath of fresh air. It was refreshing for numerous sessions to relate in some way to the students who are in my classes. One of the major themes from this conference was what was truly meant by the term “struggling learner.” Fawn Nguyen broached this topic during her keynote:

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Book Review: Math on the Move

One of the greatest benefits of my involvement with the online community known as #MTBoS, is the variety of perspectives that the educators, who make it what is it, bring to it. One such unique perspective is that of Malke Rosenfeld. Malke’s pedagogical focus is an interdisciplinary approach to learning which incorporates both mathematics and dance into what she calls “whole body math learning.”

Research has shown that “active tasks increased the engaged behavior of students both with and without disabilities. Downing et al. (1996) also found that opportunities to move around the room, use tactile and kinesthetic learning for hands-on activities, and have multiple response options increased the participation of all three students with autism in their study” (Katz and Mirenda, 2002). Because of this, I have been interested in Malke’s take on whole body math learning for some time. Which made having the opportunity to preview her upcoming book, Math on the Move, especially enticing. math-on-the-move

Malke has spent over a decade developing and refining the math and dance program called, Math in Your Feet. The book details the approach of Math in Your Feet, how the body can be used as a mathematical thinking and sense-making tool as well as highlighting various classroom applications.

She also manages to address the question, “How is this math?” Her answer is a nuanced one, but crudely paraphrased here, is that math is more than a set of discrete skills to be practiced 30 at a time on a worksheet. This includes spatial reasoning and problem solving.

Of course, as a special education teacher, I was drawn to the section entitled, “Considerations for Students with Particular Needs.” Here, Malke successfully avoids one of the major pitfalls of most books that propose modifications for students with special needs, by clumping these unique learners into one homogeneous blob called, “students with special needs.” She uses student-first language to describe methods that can support students with a variety of needs and strengths, such as: autism spectrum disorder, sensory defensiveness, auditory processing and language-related needs, physical and mobility challenges, attention issues, and cognitive challenges. She ends this section with how progress is demonstrated in the Math in Your Feet program, “…success is defined by a student’s growth compared with him- or herself.” Words that could make any special education teacher do their own happy dance!

3-Act Task: Finding a Balance

Standards:

1.OA.D.7

1.OA.D.8

Act 1

What do you notice?

What do you wonder?

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The First Day of School

I’ve never really written about what we’ve done on the first day of school before. Usually my excuse is that I’m too busy with everything that needs to get done in the first days of school. Then I read Tracy Zager‘s post about her daughter’s experience on the first day of school. After reading Zager’s take on first days of school, it made me think about how special educators handle all of the things that have to get done when classes start. Last night it was even the topic of the bi-weekly twitter chat for teaching math to students with disabilities, #SwDMathChat.

Needless to say, “There will be no talking;” “You may not work together;” and “I can not help you;” are not part of my first day of school lesson plan. In the past we have done engineering team-building activities such as The Marshmallow Challenge and The Cup Stacking Challenge. This summer during the first Mini NYC twitter Math Camp conference, teacher-educator Nicora Placa introduced me to the book, Designing Groupwork and the task, Master Designer.

Master Designer is a great beginning of the year task, because it highlights the following three groupwork behaviors, “Helping students do things for themselves;” “Explain by telling how;” and “Everybody helps.” These groupwork behaviors set a very different tone than “There will be no talking;” You may not work together; “and “I can not help you.” These three groupwork behaviors relate directly to math classes of all kinds. In my class, we want students to be trying math problems on their own, at least at first. We also want students to be able to explain how they solved (or didn’t solve) math problems. We also want students to see their classmates as sources of information and not solely relying on the teachers in the room.

Here’s how it went…

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