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I was never a strong mathematics student. I got by, and passed the necessary assessments that eventually earned me a diploma, but looking back I am saddened that no one ever made mathematics come alive for me. Had I known then what I know now, perhaps I would have had a different attitude about coming to understand and love mathematics, especially realizing the many real-life applications. As a teacher, sometimes I think we would have much more compassion if we were forced to teach only those things that we were NOT good at—perhaps that would have us consider how to approach teaching so that all would learn. We know that is not the pattern. Generally we teach that which we excelled at—making it so that we tell students "it’s easy"—meaning to encourage, but instead making students feel incompetent because they really cannot make the connections.
For students with mathematics disabilities, or processing issues that make mathematics even more difficult, it is our responsibility as educators and parents to do our best to make those real-world connections to the student’s life. It is those students who find that connection that make mathematics their passion. In this world of technology, with access to the many ways to use the world-wide web a quick Google search can put many mathematics illustrations at your fingertips to make it come alive for students. In my search I found www.teachervision.com a great site to find ideas for creating math lessons that are meaningful for students. Some suggestions included making mathematical connections to students’ lives through geometry as a way to understand and describe the world around them. They should also understand the career paths that a passion in this area of mathematics might encourage them to follow: architect, engineer, art, sports, designer, etc. Provide students with opportunities to use everyday items (pattern blocks, paper, chalk, balls, string, and mirrors) to explore the concepts, and then as they proceed through the grades, intensify the vocabulary so they can clearly convey their understandings in geometric terms. Another suggestion I found intriguing was the Number Theory Game. It is developed along the lines of 20 questions, and gives students the opportunity to think about how numbers can be described. To play the game, all you need is a copy of a hundreds chart. The teacher draws 20 tally marks on the board, and then tells students that he/she is thinking of a number between 1 and 100 and they may ask 20 questions in order to guess the number. Once you go through the process, you can discuss the kinds of questions posed, and then discuss how asking is it the number 18 only eliminates one number, while asking if the number can be divided by 2 would eliminate many more. This game is a great one to open the math class, and to develop critical thinking skills in mathematics.
A little deeper into my search I found The Access Center (www.k8access.org) where there were a plethora of suggestions on strategies to teach mathematics. The use of mnemonics instruction (or strategies to improve students’ memory of information) is generally effective in our work with students with learning disabilities. Implementing it in mathematics classes can be extremely effective if the teacher: creates the mnemonic themselves and explicitly tell student "here is a good way to remember this;" go through the steps involved in using the mnemonic (model it); provide guided practice that leads to individual practice and finally independence in using the mnemonic. One last one to share from The Access Center is the Letter Strategy. I found this helpful as so many of our students have difficulty with word problems in mathematics. In mnemonics, the letter strategy uses acronyms or acrostics and can also be known as sentence mnemonics. The strategy presented was the STAR strategy for Problem-Solving. In this strategy each letter in the word stands for a step in the problem-solving process. S- Search the word problem. T- translate the words into an equation. A-answer the problem. R- review the solution.
Access to information is readily available to most of us. It is as easy as typing a sentence to find fun, useful information that might change your teaching/parenting life. I simply searched for mathematics strategies for students with disabilities and in a few short minutes was able to build my mathematics tool kit to better engage my students.
Lois R. Favre, Ed. D. is the Superintendent of Schools for the Bridgehampton Union Free School District on the south fork of Long Island. She is a national and international presenter on differentiated instruction, behavior management, and well-published in the area of differentiation of instruction through attention to student learning styles. Before going to Bridgehampton she served in other districts in the capacity of Assistant Superintendent for Instruction and Curriculum and Pupil Personnel Services Director. She is an Editor for Insights on Learning Disabilities: From Prevailing Theories to Validated Practices.