Struggling Students

I’ve tried everything to figure out what levers work for my most struggling students. Ok, not everything, but it sure feels like it. Push-in support, phone calls home, staying after school playing chess (I have two kids I’m doing that with right now. They love chess, and are still fools in class), talking to them during down times, individual check-ins, calling on them more, seeking out quality work and sharing their work with the class as an example, targeted partners, seating rearrangements. For the most part, these interventions don’t make a significant impact — and when they do, it’s usually short-lived, either due to students regressing back to their mean or my lack of time and energy to follow through.

But I have two interventions this year that have felt extremely successful.

1. Homework. I outlined my approach to homework here. In short, my homework is mixed review, never comes from that day’s class, is mostly lower-level practice, spans the whole year and key concepts from prior years, is graded on completion, and looks the same every night.

I designed this approach with one very simple goal: I don’t care about anything except that my lowest-skilled students spend a few minutes doing worthwhile math every day outside of class. The rest fell into place around that. Last year, most of my lowest-skilled students didn’t do the homework. Even some of the kids who cared just couldn’t stomach it. This year, they all do it — kids who skip out are usually bright, unmotivated kids, or kids who struggle with organization.

I think these kids do it in part because it’s easier than their other homework — they usually struggle in other classes as well, and they’d rather do mixed review of math than 10 questions from the day’s science class they didn’t understand very well. And besides, if one question on my homework really terrifies them, they know the next question will be on a different topic and life will go on. It builds their confidence in their mathematical ability, and I have been able to “brute force” key skills and concepts by just throwing them on homework day after day. It sends a message to kids that these concepts are important, and they get the spaced practice they need. Last year, that would’ve been lost on my students — the kids who got it the first time would do the homework, and the kids who didn’t, wouldn’t.

The place I see this making the biggest impact is that key, recurring skills — the ones that you say to yourself “oh my gosh how could you have forgotten how to do that?” are the ones I focus my homework on. And when these come up again in class, kids know them. It’s amazing the difference I’ve seen.

I spend a few extra minutes a day writing these homeworks, but that time is worth its weight in gold.

2. Pre-teaching. This one I haven’t really blogged about, and I’ve been inconsistent with my implementation. Idea is simple. We have a short study hall block I can pull kids from two days a week. I pull some strugglers, and instead of digging back into what they didn’t understand last week, or last month, or last year, I show them what we’re doing the next day, or the next few days, focusing on pre-teaching key concepts and making sure they have key background knowledge.

My basic template is the same. I usually pull two kids at a time. I start with some basic skills that kids will need for the topic — for instance, percents before exponential functions, or evaluating exponents before quadratics. Then, we do something conceptual to give students a concrete foothold in the topic — maybe drawing squares if the topic is square roots, or looking at pizza prices for linear functions. The idea is just to give the kids a preview of some conceptual ideas that we will come back to throughout the unit. Finally, we dive into some of the skills students will see throughout the unit.

The goal here is not to teach everything perfectly — it’s not as a substitute for what I’m doing in class. Instead, it’s meant to give students confidence, so they can participate more and more effectively when they see the content in class. It’s meant to preview so that students’ working memory and processing power isn’t overwhelmed by new concepts. And it’s meant to show me whether there are serious roadblocks to the student’s understanding that I need to know before we see the content in class.

I was amazed the first time I did this. Students who never raise their hands, at least not willingly, were participating in class, leading discussions, and sharing ideas and teaching their peers in partner work. It’s an important reminder that much of the misbehavior I see in class comes from students frustrated struggling with hard math, not as a deliberate attack on my teaching. And every time that I make the time to pre-teach a student, I either see great results in class, or I learn about misconceptions that I can address and help to fix before class starts, rather than watching a student not learn for a day because I didn’t know what’s going through his or her head.

These aren’t magic bullet fixes. They take time, and there’s never enough of that. But I often feel like every new thing I try is a failure, and these are two things I have committed to and learned a ton about this year, and they have made a huge difference for my students who need it most.

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