Thursday, January 16, 2014

Guided Math: Struggling Learners


I said "tomorrow" I would post something about struggling learners, and that was on Sunday.  And well, today's not Monday.  It's actually Thursday.  You can have your students do the math, but I'm pretty confident I'm three days late.  So let's get right to it.

The great thing about Guided Math is that you get special time with those students that just aren't getting it, plus those that are light years ahead of what you know are teaching.  But today, we're focusing on your struggling students.  Maybe them just don't have a "math brain" or they just need a little extra time to catch a concept and really understand.  With a little extra support, you can help get them to stretch their math knowledge a little further.

These students are probably not the ones raising their hands and jumping into the conversation.  They might be slow to start, easily distracted, or just really good at looking busy.  They have developed great coping skills to cover for their lack of understanding in math.

To start, meet with these students in a really small group.  Any "guided" small group time is recommended for around 5-6 students, but with my struggling learners, I try to stick to no more than 3-4.  That can be really tricky if you have a lot, so you may need to have a few struggling groups.  This is their time.  You are giving them the opportunity to ask questions and take a risk without the pressure of the entire class being part of it.

I've read about small groups being same ability and mixed ability and information backing up both sides of the argument.  When I group to meet with students, I typically stick with same ability so that we can work on what they really need.  Then when we do whole class activities or projects, I try to mix abilities.  That way I can get the best of both worlds and can really focus on the task at hand in my small groups.  It's really important for teachers to know their class and figure out the best way to manage their groups.

Of course, small groups don't make students magically "get it".  There's a lot of hard work happening during this short period of time.  {My last post} focused on leaning in when teaching, and leaning out when students are working or responding.  This is extra important with your struggling learners.  I have found that with these students, I tend to lean in to help and then stay there.  Usually I'm anticipating that they will need more help so I'm hovering close by.  Now I'm tweaking my technique- lean in and prompt and lean back out.  Don't stick around for them to ask another question.  Instead, wait to see how far your prompt will take them.
Your struggling learners are (usually) trying really hard, and still struggling.  As teachers, we need to be careful how we are praising our students.  We should be praising the effort and not the correct answers.  I try to remember this throughout the day, especially during whole group instruction.

Try asking step by step questions instead of just looking for an answer.  "Who can tell us how they started this problem?" might be easier for a struggling student to answer than "What answer did you get?".

Sometimes, I like to give my students a difficult problem and give them time to solve.  When I ask for someone to tell me how they solved it, they all stare at me.  No one is willing to try and risk getting it wrong.  Then I ask: "Who wants to take a wild guess?"

I like to say "wild guess" because it gives a sense of safety in the answer because I'm not just looking for the correct answer.  It only takes one student to break the ice and now you can follow up with "Did anyone try to solve it a different way?".

This gives me the opportunity to follow it up with something like, "Yes!  That's a great guess.  What made you think that?"  or "Ooohhhh, I didn't even think of that!  That's why we share our ideas out loud!"  Then, after each guess I can help guide their thinking.

It doesn't hurt to have your teaching tricks and tools tucked up your sleeve or somewhere nearby.  We all have special ways to help students grasp a math concept.

My next post- who knows when, maybe tomorrow, or in four days- I'll be sharing about what the rest of the class should be doing while you're with you're with your guided group, and those lovely center activities that keep them actively learning...


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