Increasing Engagement in Math: Adapting Small Group Instruction at Learn4Life

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A Collaborative Learning Model

I work at Mission View Public Charter in Valencia, California, supporting students in grades 9–12, who come from a range of backgrounds. At Learn4Life, many students are under-credited for their age (60% are too old or ineligible for traditional high school), and around 84% are socio-economically disadvantaged; many students come to Learn4Life from foster care, or have experienced homelessness, incarceration, probation, and other difficult circumstances. Learn4Life employs a robust curriculum that enables some students to go straight to a four-year university upon graduation and is WASC-accredited (Accrediting Commission for Schools, Western Association of Schools and Colleges), signifying to the community that its programs and services are continually evaluated and improved.

You can tell a lot about a student’s life by how their transcript looks. Learn4Life takes a distinct approach to help students feel confident and comfortable while earning their credits. If a student has 118 credits of the 220 needed to earn a high school diploma, we go back with the student to fulfill the things they missed. It’s centered around an ongoing conversation between me and the student—it’s never broadcasted that you’re 18 years old in the 9th grade. We work with students to normalize building from where they left off, regardless of where that is. We use Individualized Learning Plans to determine course placements with the registrar. In a traditional school, kids who are falling behind or the kids with behavioral challenges are in the very back of the classroom and nobody’s really paying attention to them. Here, we design to have a smaller setting with in-depth instruction to support each student.

In my role as special education lead, I support three schools and manage a caseload of 28 students. I support teachers at our other two locations by distributing information from our program specialist regarding best practices, guidelines, etc. In other school models, teachers hear about best practices and guidelines from their administrators, who do not really work with students—so the fact that our teachers get resources and support from me, a fellow teacher, changes how it’s received. I’m in the trenches with them, and I understand what they are going through. It was a bit hard at first being the younger teacher surrounded by veteran teachers, but I have grown to love it. It took me a long time to build relationships with these teachers, and now we all work together so well. Collaboration is key!

Be okay with slowing down. It is okay if students are not completing a credit every week. The goal is mastery not speed.

Adaptive Math Pods

Pre-COVID, the educational environment was one-on-one support for each student—general education and students with disabilities. Because we’re an independent study program, we have resource centers divided into pods, rather than classrooms. The pods we’ve created are almost like kidney tables, and pre-COVID, the teacher would be behind the kidney table with her 4–6 students teaching them based on what they need. Because our students with disabilities needed a lot more intensive and individualized support, they would attend the heterogeneous pods and the resource room.

When COVID-19 forced our programming to go virtual, our team noticed that students with learning challenges were struggling and unable to keep up with instruction when they were in both virtual general education settings and small group instruction–especially in math. We adjusted the pace of the curriculum and quickly saw some change, but still noticed that students with learning challenges were failing classes, which would mean they would need to retake them. After approval from my administration, I created an even smaller inclusive pod. In these smaller virtual groups, I had general education students and students with IEPs. This made it possible for them to work at a pace where they all felt comfortable and could make progress. For example, instead of going through a credit every week, we would go through a credit every two weeks. Instead of focusing on algebra essentials and algebra at the same time, I focused on algebra essentials or math foundations first, and once the students mastered those skills we were able to put them into a general education algebra pod.  

Once COVID-related restrictions were lifted, students were able to return to hybrid in-person learning, and the smaller pod model continued to work well. I support these students in person by front-loading information, addressing questions they have, and prefacing the objectives for the week. After we preview the learning, the students spend the next hour in the virtual classroom with their math teacher while I am physically with the students during their virtual instruction and can support them in real-time. Student attendance has actually increased now that we are allowed to be on-site a little more; because students are with me for the first hour, that guarantees they’ll be in math class for the second hour, while still having access to one-on-one support from me.

By the time these students get to algebra, their credit completion has improved, whereas before I had seen many students drop out of algebra. The students are getting elective credits for these foundational courses, and when they get to algebra, they’re much more prepared for it and much more successful in the classes. I looked at the pre-COVID data for the students on my caseload and they were not doing any math at all—they were avoiding it. Now, at least half of my caseload has finished algebra or is in a math foundations or algebra essentials pod.

Building Staff Communication through Virtual Learning

Pre-COVID, collaboration with other teachers was missing. We are hoping to develop a system where there is open communication and collaboration which allows us to really work together to plan better instruction and supports for our students. During COVID we were all really leaned on one another—it was a very scary time. Now we message and communicate throughout the whole day about something that came up or exciting news about our students.

Reflections

What We Learned/Big Takeaway


By creating small groups of previously siloed students who were working on similar materials, we were able to ease scheduling concerns and create a community for students to support each other.

What We Are Still Figuring Out


The linear model of Learn4Life doesn’t always fit every student—particularly when it comes to math progression.  We really have to advocate for our students. For example, when students get through algebra and they are on a roll with math, I really want them to go on to geometry. But they still have a lot of stuff in 9th grade they need to complete—they technically have to unlock those 9th grade requirements before we can move on to that 10th grade math. These feel like adult barriers that we can adapt to be more student-centered.

What I Would Tell Other Leaders


If you’re interested in trying hybrid learning pods, my advice is to build collaborative relationships with your students’ other teachers. Encourage smaller group sizes and educate the other teachers of the students’ challenges. Brainstorm interventions to really meet those needs together. Be okay with slowing down. It is okay if students are not completing a credit every week. The goal is mastery not speed. Focus on objectives relevant to the students’ IEP goals, and implement modifications to the curriculum that are in their IEPs. If you target and meet specific objectives, then I think you are winning as a teacher. 

Resources


Math teachers can use this strategy to make sure students get the individualized instruction they need to stay on track.
This edWebinar underscores mindsets and practices teachers can develop to assuage the assault against belonging and to become proactive in restoring equity and opportunity in classrooms that serve students from disenfranchised backgrounds.
This site contains evidence-based mathematics resources for educators by an Associate Professor in the Department of Special Education at the University of Texas at Austin. It contains links to YouTube video examples of how to apply evidence-based strategies to teach math concepts. Recommended by WestEd.
Teachers in virtual learning environments will need new ways to lead small group instruction. This resource gives pointers for different models of instruction, differentiating instruction, anticipating barriers, and more.
Flexible grouping is a data-driven teaching practice. It puts students into temporary groups to work together for only as long as is needed for them to develop an identified skill or to complete a learning activity. The groups change often based on students’ needs, skill development, or knowledge.

About The Author

My name is Angelina Morrison and I have been working in Special Education for the past 10 years, 4 of those years I have been a teacher. I enjoy working with students with learning differences and making accommodations, so they have equal access to the curriculum. My favorite part about teaching is helping students find their “WHY.” I am passionate about making a difference and helping youth become productive members of society. In my free time I enjoy kickboxing and journaling.  I have been married to my Husband for 11 years and we have 2 kids. We like visiting national parks throughout California and evening bike rides. My favorite day of the year is Graduation and my purpose in life is helping get students to that stage!

School Background

Learn4Life is a network of non-profit public schools that provides students personalized learning, career training, and life skills. Each school is locally controlled, tuition free, and gives students the flexibility and one-to-one attention they need to succeed.

Learn4Life helps students who need options in education and an adult who helps them through the process. Our teachers take the time to understand each student, and then tailor his or her education to meet their specific needs. This is our proven model of personalized learning, flexibility, one-on-one attention and workforce readiness programs. Each step of the way, we work to remove all obstacles in the way of a student’s high school diploma and life success. We offer more than a diploma. With career and life skills, we help prepare each student with courage and confidence for life beyond high school.