Most of our students come to us with bright eyes and winning smiles, and I know that too many arrive in our classrooms with missing skills. What do you do when you struggle to meet the needs of such students, who don’t know their multiplication facts, can’t divide, and are maybe a couple grade levels behind with reading?
You spend so much time just trying to get them to understand. You can’t even get to meet with all your math groups. Sometimes you extend whole group math because it feels like some of them are never “going to get it.” You may never even get to your advanced group.
Once I was right where you are, just trying to hammer away teaching math, feeling like I was fighting a hopeless battle. I had never taught math with so many special needs and varying abilities. It was so frustrating.
We don’t have to teach that way.
The thing about your low babies is. . .if you don’t teach or support them in their fluency, who will? I know they should have come to you knowing their math facts and being able to read at their grade level. But they didn’t.
Did you decide to become a teacher because you love only average students? Or is there room in your heart for all of them?
I already know your answer because you love your kiddos—all of them.
I know you do not want to be the teacher who passes students along without the skills necessary for the next grade. It’s time to rethink differentiation. Put aside all of those past-focused, “should have” thoughts. We are going to focus on what’s possible now, with these students in front of you. Today.
Today we are going to keep is simple. As simple as “1-2-3.”
Step 1. Practice. Your students aren’t going to become fluent overnight. They need practice time during math. As with any learning, time to practice is non-negotiable. Within your math small groups, provide a fluency rotation.
Use a math-fluency game program in their technology rotations, like Reflex. Such programs offer built-in incentives. Besides, they are fun and the program rewards their progress. Which leads to the next step: offer rewards.
Step 2. Reward. Several years ago I taught an inclusion math class—meaning I had all the students with IEPs in one class with a Special Education teacher. They were not fluent in their math facts. It was my job to get them there because we had some big math problems to solve. What dawned on me was how if they had wanted to become fluent in their facts, they would have already become fluent. Their lack of motivation was due to a variety of factors that don’t really matter because most students will work for rewards.
Offer incentives to master their 4s or 5s multiplication tables, like filling up a sticker chart or a prize each time they master. You can even have a “fact master” bulletin board like I used. And most days, at the beginning of class, I would surprise them by slapping down flash cards on their desk. Every correct answer produced class cash they could spend at the classroom store.
By the end of the year, with fluency centers and effective incentives, 17 of 18 students had mastered their math facts.
Step 3. Use lower digit multiplication problems to practice processes. Students who don’t know their math facts will get stuck on multi-digit multiplication and division, and any “stuck” becomes “give up” too easily. But if you provide a scaffold to practice the process without tripping over the fluency hurdle, they can master the process.
For example, instead of multiplying 79 by 88, you can teach the process of area model or partial products using 22 x 32. Same process without the fluency speed bump. You could also allow the use of a multiplication chart.
By the end of the year, they can master the more challenging 79 x 88, as long as they’ve had practice and time to get their fluency boosted, in parallel with learning new processes.
Focus on this 3 step approach and create a system for addressing fluency in your classroom. Not only will you teach your students what they need to be successful, you’ll be the teacher other teachers thank. You’ll be known as a master teacher.