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…
We introduced the activity by asking students what they thought it would entail based on the title alone.
“We’re gonna make clothes!”
“It’s about being the best at designing!”
Some students saw the pattern blocks on another table and inferred based on that, “We are going to make shape designs!”
Next, we presented the steps of the Master Designer process. This led to a whole group fishbowl style modeling of the task by my assistant teacher and myself. The students stood around the table as one of us played the role of Master Designer and the other teacher played the role of other group member who had to replicate the design. As the students suggested descriptions for how to replicate the pattern block designs, the teachers intentionally took each description literally, which also allowed us to highlight the value of making mistakes. Even I couldn’t help but be excited to see if my assistant teacher had made the correct design based on our explanations and I knew he was intentionally trying to make mistakes on the first try!
Once the students took over as the master designers and replicators, the teachers were able to walk around the classroom and assess students’ visual-spatial processing, receptive and expressive language, executive functioning, and fine-motor skills. All of these pieces of information are just as valuable to a special educator as knowing whether they have their multiplication facts memorized.
After a couple of rounds, we came back together to introduce the three groupwork behaviors (PDF) and discuss their daily relevance to math class. Using the concrete example of the Master Designer activity, the intensely abstract discussion of successful groupwork behaviors was very positive. Students were able to see that one can work in a group, but do work on their own at the same time.
Finally, we introduced the role of the observer (PDF). Drawing on this concrete example allowed students to share moments when students explained how they made their designs as well as moments when students helped other students. In special education, presumption of competence and self-advocacy are often over-looked in favor of over–scaffolding and fill-in-the blank activities. Students are rarely held up as founts of knowledge in special education math classes. Our class is an exception and Master Designer helped us get there!