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What's Next For My Kids?

Tom Black has spent five years developing a constructivist math curriculum to accommodate all types of learners including general and special education students. After spending long hours and many sleepless nights on the project, he is finally seeing the fruits of his labor. His students' math grades and test scores reflect the effectiveness of his methods. However, Tom is troubled because none of his fellow teachers have taken his lead and modified their teaching styles. Many of his students, after re-entering traditional classes, are returning to their former spiral of failure.


As the bell rang to signal the end of third period, Tom Black rose from his position on the floor where all of his 9th-grade Math Exploration students sat in their cooperative work groups putting finishing touches on their projects. "Time for lunch," he said as everyone scurried to gather up their models and put them back on the shelves. "We are out of time today, but we'll finish up our projects tomorrow and then start our group presentations on Thursday. Is everyone okay with that?"

"Okay, Mr. Black," several students responded as everyone gathered up their books and headed for their lockers. Tom grabbed his lunch bag and looked around the room before turning off the lights.

"Hey, Josh," Tom called when he noticed that the boy was still in the corner, bending over his project. "You will have time to finish your model tomorrow. It's time to eat now. Aren't you hungry?"

"I'm coming. I just wanted to finish measuring the walls for paint. I'm done now," answered Josh Wilson as he picked up his book bag and walked towards the door.

"Your group has really done a great job," Tom said to Josh as they headed through the door and towards the cafeteria. "I'm very proud of the way this class has worked together on this project."

"Yeah, we kinda had fun, I guess," Josh answered as he turned the corner. "See you tomorrow, Mr. Black."

Tom waved good-bye to Josh as he turned into the teachers' lounge to check his message box before heading to the cafeteria himself. He was especially pleased with the transformation he had noticed in Josh since the beginning of the term. Josh, a student with learning disabilities had not had positive experiences in previous math classes. Typical of most of the students entering this class, the downcast eyes and defeated expression on Josh's face as he entered Tom's classroom last fall said it all.

"I'm Josh and I hate math," was his response when Tom asked the class to introduce themselves on that first day of class. All of the students in this class were low achievers, with up to 50% having learning or behavioral disabilities. Others in the room shared Josh's sentiments about math.

"Why do we have to learn this stuff? It doesn't help us do anything," demanded a very tall boy in a football jersey who also looked less than thrilled to be there. "Oh, I'm Kevin," he added as he sat down amidst grumbling agreement from other classmates around the room.

"Well, I can see that many of you have strong opinions about math," Tom smiled as he began his introduction to the class. "I'm Mr. Black and I hope to change your minds this year. We're going to do some interesting experiments that I think you will enjoy and some practical projects that will help you see why we need to know math. This fall we're going to be working together in groups to design and build models of buildings. We'll start with a classroom and later we'll design and build a model of a house. We will have to measure the windows, doors, ceilings--everything-- and then draw it to scale. We'll need to figure out how much carpet will be needed as well as paint. Without math, we wouldn't be able to do any of this. None of it will be hard for you once you understand why and how we do certain things. Even if it is hard, you won't be alone; you'll have your group to help you."

"My goal is to have all of you appreciating if not loving math by the time this year is over," Tom finished as he looked around the room. Although he had piqued their interest, he could see by their faces that most were still skeptical.

The students had good reason to be skeptical; allof them had failed in traditional mathematics classrooms. They were convinced from experience that math was hard, and that it would never make sense because they were just too dumb. Tom knew that it would take more than a nice little speech to change their minds.

After five years of teaching students like these, he was used to this initial disillusionment and recognized it for what it was. Usually by December, he could see them coming around, opening up, and even getting enthusiastic about his class. "This is too much fun.  Is this really a math class?" many kids would write in their journal after they realized how different his class was from others they had taken. The journals helped the students build self-esteem by allowing them to safely express themselves and reflect on their experience in Tom's class.

Josh Wilson's dramatic transformation had been a particularly sweet victory for Tom. Back in the fall, Josh had all but given up and was talking about quitting school. Now, he was taking the initiative on his own to stay after class and finish projects. He was even able to admit that he was enjoying the work.

"This is why I became a teacher," Tom said to himself as he watched Josh walk down the hall on his way to lunch. "This makes all the long hours and sleepless nights worthwhile."

Tom had been hired at Southwind High School five years ago to teach all basic, individualized math classes to low-achieving 9th and 10th-grade students. This was a formidable task, but Tom hoped he could rise to the challenge and make math meaningful for his students. What he found was discouraging.  The students were unmotivated and unresponsive, and he soon became uninspired. He was reduced to an "enforcer," marching up and down the aisles in order to keep the students in line and on task. He began to realize that the traditional math curriculum was the problem for these "low achievers."  It just didn't accommodate their learning styles. There must be another way to teach these kids math and if he was going to keep teaching he would have to find it.

At that point, Tom embarked on a bold pursuit. Without much support from the math department, he decided to throw out the existing curriculum for his math class. He wanted to create something more relevant, more practical, more hands-on, and more meaningful for his students. Because a curriculum such as this did not exist in the school system where he worked, he took a "constructivist approach." Using a group exploration model and utilizing multiple and varied learning strategies, Tom developed his thematic content and methods of instruction as he went along. When experiments or demonstrations worked well, he would add another step; when they didn't work well, he changed something or tried it another way. Slowly, his new curriculum began to take hold and students began to respond positively.

Now, although he was accustomed to these transformations of low achievers into enthusiastic learners, they still moved him and propelled him to create more and better classroom themes. The amount of personal time and effort Tom had expended was significant but his student's grades and achievement tests scores reflected the effectiveness of his new program. School administrators were beginning to take note. Life was good, except...

Tom was beginning to be troubled by one nagging thought. After completing his class, his students had to go back to traditional classrooms with traditional teaching methods. There were no other "constructivist classes" in the school. No other teachers in the math department were taking his lead and modifying their teaching styles to accommodate students with non-traditional learning styles. He had initially hoped that after increasing their self-confidence and skill level, his students would be able to succeed in or at least survive traditional approaches to math. More often than he cared to admit, though, that wasn't the case.

Many of his students returned to their former spiral of failure and he couldn't bear the look of disappointment that was evident on their faces when they came back to visit. He felt in some way that it was almost a betrayal on his part to build them up and let them taste success, only to return them to an environment that set them up to fail. But what could he do? It had taken years just to develop his own curriculum. He had proven that these students were capable of achievement if their particular learning styles could be accommodated. His colleagues, however, were not convinced that Tom's students learned the basics. They were comfortable with the traditional curriculum and saw no reason to change.

How much more time and effort would it take to convince the others to change the way they taught? Tom questioned his role as a teacher and asked himself, "How much more should I do? Am I responsible for what happens next for my students?"


Discussion/Study Questions

  1. List what you learned/know about each of the characters in the case.
  2. What do you think is motivating the thoughts/actions of each of the characters?
  3. What are the issues/problems in the case?

Additional Questions

  1. Discuss ways that Tom can advocate his methods of instruction to other teachers within his school or his district.
  2. Why do you think that Tom’s curriculum has been so successful for students with learning disabilities?
  3. Which individuals within the school or district might be helpful to Tom in promoting his new curriculum and instructional ideas? How can Tom get them to support his methods?
  4. Do you think it is Tom’s responsibility to advocate for his students after they leave him?
  5. Is it realistic for a teacher to expect other faculty members to abandon a proven and preferred method of instruction on the basis of one teacher’s success with a radical and unproven one?
  6. Is it a teacher's responsibility to consider the instructional environments that students will enter in the future?  Should those considerations guide or affect how a teacher approaches instruction within his or her own classroom?


CEC Competency/Knowledge Areas Addressed in the Case

Different learning styles of students and how to adapt teaching to these styles.

Demands of various learning environments (e.g., individualized instruction in general education classes).

Diversity and dynamics of schools as related to effective instruction for individuals with exceptional learning needs.

Educational implications of characteristics of various exceptionalities.


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