I’m sitting across the table from Suzy, a fluency drill and iPad marking the distance between us. Suzy picks up the sheet of paper and looks it over. I then mark the sheet using two symbols, a dot indicating where she read to the last time and a star representing her end of the trimester goal. I ask Suzy what her goal is; she points to the star and shares, “Today I am going to meet my goal.” Nodding my head in approval, I start the timer, and Suzy begins to read. As I listen, the words, perfectly articulated, roll off her tongue with ease. I am amazed that this is the same girl who sat at this table in September. But’s it’s Suzy, no longer fumbling over these words, but rather reading them fluently. As the timer goes off I see a smile begin to spread across Suzy’s face as she exclaims, “I did it!”
Clearly Suzy is not the actual name of one of my students, but she is real. So, how does a student like Suzy make three years worth of growth in one year’s time? Numbers. While I am often one to dispute the effectiveness of standardized tests as means to measure growth and achievement for all students, I do believe in numbers. Numbers, plain and simple, matter. Whether on a scale, a timer or a fluency sheet, they hold us accountable. When used effectively, numbers can be a motivating factor for students.
Tools for Progress
As a special education teacher I am responsible for implementing progress, as well as monitoring measures on a consistent basis (weekly, monthly or each trimester) in order to track student growth toward particular goals. When these measures are used in conjunction with direct instruction and in a manner that involves and engages students, progress happens.
The difficult part is that for many students who receive special education services, no one has ever had an honest conversation with these students about their disabilities or academic levels. To be honest, for a long time I tiptoed around this for fear that I would give students another reminder of what they were not able to do. However, the reality is that kids need to know what their levels are so that they can set goals and do the work necessary to meet them.
While this conversation certainly needs to be well-planned and must take place privately with each student, it’s often quite powerful. This conversation should also be recurring. I schedule weekly “workshops” with my students after we finish our progress monitoring measures; during these workshops we review progress, set a goal for the next week and even look at students’ progress toward their long-term or trimester-based goals. The students know that this time is coveted for each of them; therefore it is often uninterrupted and well-respected by the members of our class.
Increasing Student Involvement
Numbers don’t become the focus of our instruction, but serve as tools to help determine if a student needs more work in a particular area or is ready to move on. My students, although hesitant at first, really enjoy the process. They are motivated when they make progress and are able reflect and engage in conversations when they don’t make the progress they expected. This is where the most powerful learning happens: When a student doesn’t make their anticipated gains, we identify and discuss barriers to their progress and talk about strategies that they can use the next time. Very rarely do students remain “stuck”: often, no one has ever had an honest conversation with them about their disabilities or academic levels, and they’re motivated to see their numbers go up.
As students receiving special education services get older, they are a part of the individualized education program (IEP) team, meaning that they are a part of determining their goals for the next year. I find that my students can easily articulate their levels and work with the team to set realistic and timely goals; and, most importantly, they are invested.
Anyone who has seen me in the classroom knows that my students are rarely confined to that space. My students can be found at the fire station working with the local fire department as part of a collaborative program, on the trails behind the school building survival shelters based on a reading unit or competing in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) team-building challenges on the football field. They also can be seen completing progress monitoring measures, as well as reading skills and drills, because these things matter, too. What is key is carefully embedding these things into instruction so that students can see how getting better in a particular area (such as reading fluency or math applications) makes it easier to do the things in which they are most interested (like reading books about survival or building catapults).
Finally, if you are not convinced that numbers are important, I will tell you their greatest impact is on students’ confidence. Students love to see that they are getting “good” at something and are motivated to work hard to get even better. Numbers are concrete and non-negotiable, and can offer both pride and accountability. For my students, numbers are effective tools that encourage them to push themselves in ways that they did not think possible.